Looking at LOOKING AT YOU: A Dialogue

Photo by Paula Court

Culturebot editor Dan O’Neil and contributor Amy Gijsbers van Wijk recently co-experienced Looking At You at HERE Arts, a show described as “an immersive techno-noir operatic experience.” Composed by Kamala Sankaram, with a libretto by Rob Handel, and direction by Kristen Marting, the opera (which closed on September 21st) confronts surveillance capitalism and the erosion of individual privacy in a digitized world. In the spirit of data transparency, Dan and Amy recently traded a bunch of emails about their experience of the show.

 DAN: Hey Amy! Let’s start with technology — the show is obviously about technology and also built with technology (six tv screens, a bunch of singing I-pods, a data mining operation that projects personal Facebook and Instagram feeds on said screens). 

AMY: *singing iPads, right? (Or really like Amazon Fires or Samsung tablets? lol.) 

DAN: Singing tablets. Let’s go with singing tablets. But it’s also an opera. As someone who doesn’t attend a whole lot of opera, I wonder how the form functioned for you? I’m trying to decide for myself. It elevates the level of presentation, for sure. A heightening effect. It also distances? The central “romance,” if you want to call it that, between Dorothy (a woman in a new position of power within the social media conglomerate “Rix”) and Ethan (a sys admin – lolz – who ends up stealing and releasing 1.7 millions documents, ala Snowden) felt at an arm’s length for the most part. More to the point, then: My question is, how did this being an opera effect how you experienced it?

AMY: So, I love opera. I used to really not get it, but in high school I did an extracurricular project that required me to listen to lots of opera from around the French Revolution, and I really fell in love with the drama of it. I agree with you, I think it’s totally heightening — but I think what it trades for distance. . . perhaps in terms of emotional “mirroring” (I don’t find myself falling in love, per se, with the main characters of Dorothy or Ethan) was that I felt the drama of their love. I felt the immense loneliness and need to be with someone, the frustration of being abandoned, etc. in a way that actually, for me, almost creates an emotional shorthand or shortcut. I was able to enter into these intense, specific moments of their relationship without asking questions (as an audience member) about who/where they were before. I think, had this been non-operatic, I might’ve wondered more.

I also think it elevates these moments that feel like opera in our lives. Waiting for someone to text you back and being ghosted by them, initially (before you realize maybe you are in a tragedy). Or having “made it” because you’re at this multi-million-dollar tech company. I’m saying this to some degree as a layperson (in that I don’t write opera), but I feel like opera can also give you that deep level of tragedy or darkness and foreshadowing so well, in such a rich way, and that for me mirrored the sort of “spy thriller” quality of some of the genre-ish touchstones that flavor the piece, like Casablanca.

To get back to your sort of introductory thought — I would say that while in some ways I did feel at “arm’s length” from being inside the experience of Dorothy and Ethan’s love story, emotionally I felt access to it in deeper, bigger ways, that I think are largely due to the form. I also can’t help but feel that the idea of when are you inside/outside of the feelings, of the experience, really relates to social media, to media in general, to voyeurism and media, watching/being watched (by friends/on their Insta feeds, or surveilled) which also feel thematically a part of the piece. 

DAN: With regard to form, I’ll add that it turns out that tech speak is more or less hilarious when rendered into the operatic. It would be less funny if it was any less heightened, even down to the level of musical theater.  

AMY: Yes! I do think the tech speak is pretty funny.

DAN: Jumping over to technology in general, which this show is both about and contained a lot of, design-wise. I suppose the risk, when making art about “current” technology, is the speed at which the real-life narrative unfolds. Six years ago, when Looking at You was first being created, a discussion about privacy and data leaks alongside a cynical look inside a big Silicon Valley tech giant would have felt… well, different than it does now. It’s certainly still relevant, but now functions as more of a reassertion of that which we already know, versus an exposé. It would appear that, as a society, we’re at around the same point with data surveillance and digital privacy that we are with climate change, in that we agree that it’s happening, and that it’s bad, but we’re not really doing anything about it. 

Yet, even if the majority of the show’s content feels diagnostic, it does find a moment of bleak prescience in its closing moments, as Dorothy and Ethan commit themselves to physical death but ever-lasting life in the “cloud” (Is that what happened? It’s what I thought was happening) as they sing directly to the audience, reminding us that even if we don’t feel like our privacy is vital today, there may come a day, soon — like really soon with our current administration — when that may not be true anymore, and it will be, at that juncture, too late.

How did you feel about the discussion? What worked? What were you excited by, design-wise?

AMY: The Cloud upload moment was definitely ideologically interesting. (That is what I think is happening, too.) Because in a way, as much as that self-destruction in the play (in addition to being very spy-like) is protective — like privacy, like setting a boundary as “you’ll never learn this about me,” and “I’ll never talk! Never!” — it almost feels like putting all of their faith in the Cloud. Right? Because the idea is that TRANSPORT (a company-issued lethal-pill inspired earpiece) uploads you. Which I also feel like potentially contains a small joke, which is “Where does anything go in the Cloud?,” the way people question the afterlife. And no user fully understands how the Cloud actually functions. I’m just struck by the idea that as much as it’s an act of betrayal or distrust in humans, it’s an act of faith in the technology they’ve built. And its ability to save them. 

Design-wise, I was actually very excited about the way the set operated, and how people would appear or disappear unexpectedly. In regards to the media, I think it was exciting – and still felt somewhat violating – to know that people had their data mined (even on a lite level). 

In terms of this larger scope discussion around technology and where we are at with privacy, it feels complicated. I went through a phase of being really interested in digital privacy and so I looked into all the things I could do as a consumer. But right, with this administration, a lot gets rolled back and you can’t do as much. It does feel like protection and privacy are based a lot on local and state regulation. 

With what you’re saying about climate change and digital privacy, that’s curious to me because one of the things that’s shared in that is a consideration of corporate interest vs collective communities. Anyway. 

One of the other things that I’m left thinking about, though, is Ethan and Dorothy and the idea of ambition. And how that gets channeled. Because at Rix, you have everyone really committed to this almost-narcissistic idea of exceptionalism. Early in the opening of the piece, Dorothy is singing about themes of inclusion, or being heard. I can’t remember the exact lyrics, but she mentions having to be quiet, having to have her ideas taken or used by others, and how now it’ll be different and she’s going to ask for and try to get what she wants. These are things that feel reflective of my experience in the world. 

Ethan, on the other hand, is sort of considered a little unassuming and simple in his job (the running joke of him being just a sys admin, like you mention) and at the same time, he becomes this whistleblower. 

I don’t know if this is partially a tech and a thriller theme (things and people are never as they seem, apps and terms of service included) but that idea feels like it’s also at the heart of the piece. 

I think there’s less a question of “what’s to be done” and more is a question of “how do we know what’s really going on.” It’s less about privacy in some ways and more about transparency of information. And that’s making me think of the ways that Ethan and Dorothy maybe are or aren’t transparent in their communication to each other,  but also how they’re viewed. Invisible or exceptional or other. 

Do you have thoughts on that? 

DAN: I love the level of nuance that you’re delving into. I feel like I’m a bit stuck on the surface when it comes to Ethan and Dorothy, maybe because — going back to our first exchange — they feel like they’re at an emotional arm’s length away, and so I’m reading them more as allegorical than living and breathing. But yes, they are and they aren’t transparent with each other in a variety of ways. They both want something, and it’s maybe a different version of the same thing? Dorothy wants to, I think, succeed in her field. Ethan wants to expose the dangers of the field, and does so even while breaking his promise to Dorothy that they would run away to a remote place together. (Which I guess they end up doing in the end, via the Cloud).  

The scene in which this all happens, by the way, I found to be one of the most approachable in the opera, communicated mostly in text messages, which the production underlines by projecting the text bubbles above Dorothy and Ethan’s heads, a play on opera titling as well as a visual counterpoint to the physical singers. 

AMY: Yes! I love the scene with the text messages. I also love how it moves backwards through their texts, because that feels like so much of how we engage with texts, and a lot of social media (backwards-in-time checking in moments of doubt/anxiety/confusion, on large or small scales). 

DAN: I do get a little lost, though, with Dorothy’s awakening to the dangers of the technology. Let me walk myself through it, and you can weigh in. Dorothy creates an app. It’s awesome. It’s gonna make her famous in the company. It’s called “Check You Out,” and it’s supposed to pull from every available data stream in order to determine whether or not a random person you’ve just photographed is a good romantic match for you or not. It’s AI, so it learns and evolves. During the demo of it, the performers “photograph” audience members and then demonstrate how much data can be easily mined just from what we’ve provided them (which is pretty much just, our name). So yeah, scary.

Then the AI evolves? And starts doing… what exactly? More than it should? It takes and takes and grows in power. Dorothy becomes scared of what it’s doing, and then decides to use it in order to undermine the company she works for (and I guess, in that, aligns herself with Ethan’s mission). She then steals a device from her boss, gives it to Ethan, and they both ascend / transcend the earthly realm together. 

So bring it home. Tell me what it all means!!

AMYSo, Check You Out is meant to use an algorithm to take certain factors (age, college, credit score, other things) and factor whether or not a person is a good match for you. My sense is it then sorts these people in a list, right, like a folder marking them as having X quality. But then, the algorithm starts compiling a new list, which is to check for someone’s ability to basically be a radical person. (They have a specific term for these people but I’m forgetting what it is.) 

DAN: Oh right! Like… deviant. But not deviant. Threat level assessment.

AMY: Dorothy’s co-worker says is that as they test the app, it seems like the algorithm is identifying more of these people. At the product launch, they’re going to sort of ruin the product by showing its potential for danger. (Really, Dorothy seemed pretty unaware of this problem with the app, so Dorothy and Ethan owe her a lot.)

I think at the end, Ethan shows up there, and the thing that I am left wondering about is that split-second decision to upload themselves away. We know that Dorothy and Ethan will destroy their lives (have already destroyed them — that’s something Ethan says, I think it’s something about burning a shiny perfect life to the ground) if they get arrested, so they shuffle off their mortal coils using little electronic coils and ascend to the Cloud.

The thing I find myself lingering on is. . . are they really safe, even in the Cloud? Are they somehow discoverable as data, or is even that thinking too literally about their minds? Like, when Dorothy’s boss (was his name Raj?) was talking about Transport, he made it seem less like a cyanide pill, though of course in some ways it is one, and more like “who needs your body anyway.” Even with Check You Out, I feel like I’m led to believe now that this problem with the app has been revealed, it’ll damage Rix’s image, and that somehow without Dorothy, it’s unsalvageable. But realistically, in our world today, I wouldn’t be surprised if Rix just got some new engineers and developers, did some tweaks (sold the creepy version of the app to places like the NYPD), and released a public use version. Because the amount of money they’d get from those deals has far more worth than a corporation’s privacy concerns. In a way, Dorothy and Ethan escape a reality that we can’t, right? They get out of the labyrinth.

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