Fatebook

A Virtual Shock To The System: New Paradise Laboratories

It isn’t as if the real world has vanished. Many of us are spending an awful lot of time staring at screens, updating our Facebook status, etc., but we’re not (yet) hardwired into virtual reality, unable to remember the feel of human touch. 

At the same time, there’s a growing anxiety in the culture about the extent to which technology is reshaping our lives and relationships, and how rapidly these changes are happening. People are wondering whether the substance of their Facebook friendships really merits all the time they’re spending on them, questioning whether the more “interconnected” we become via the social web, the more alienated we become from one another. Techno-utopians tell us to embrace the future. Techno-dystopians tell us to head for the hills . . . 

Recognizing that technology is here to stay, and that how we live online is increasingly how we live, a new kind of theater company in Philadelphia is trying to translate the danger, intimacy, and intensity of offline experience to cyberspace. Because of its unprecedented approach to the human/machine interface, New Paradise Laboratories is one of a handful of nominees for the 2012 Bing Humanizing Technology Prize

NPLs online work is a natural extension of what theater has always done better than any other medium: piercing the bubble of habitual existence to reconnect us with ourselves. At a moment in history when theater seems increasingly marginal to mainstream culture, we’re more in need than ever of a theatrical shock to the system. 

Based in Philadelphia (in one sense, worldwide in another), NPL was founded in 1996 by Whit MacLaughlin, the company’s Artistic Director (read our full interview with Whit following the video clip, below):

Whit MacLaughlin: NPL from the beginning was a company that thought of theatre-going purely as experience. Old school NPL performances were loud, elliptical, and visceral, like rock concerts. Think Bowie or Pink Floyd in the days when bands started upping the theatrical ante—but of course we weren’t that big. We were a feverish mash-up of images and sound—not many words. But we incorporated big ideas and had a philosophical bent.

It was natural for us to consider the Internet as a place to put theatre. We weren’t interested in broadcasting—that is, employing the web to increase our reach with what we were already doing. We were interested in finding a web-based narrative language. Pointillist. Investigative. We liked the “down the rabbit hole” effect and wanted to engender that same frame of mind—we wanted to entice people to fall in. We started to conceive and write with that objective in mind.

Their most recent project, Extremely Public Displays, is a three act “musical” that unfolds via text-chat, facebook-feed, video-performance and online concert. EPD is an unsettling, claustrophobic, and thrilling experience – it turns inside out the casual intimacy and voyeurism of our networked world. 

Another project – Fatebook – began in July 8, 2009 with the launch of a website allowing users to explore the lives of thirteen virtual 20-somethings nonlinearly, by image, character name, or themes like “crying.” In September, 2009, their stories culminated in a live performance: 

the FATEBOOK party—where time stops, computers crash, and it's now or never. And the ghost and the body part ways. And all bets are off. And nobody can say what's real. And relief is in sight. And all matter collapses in on itself in a punishing gravitational catastrophe. And the lights go out for good. And it all gets really, really real...

Fatebook Promo from Kim Bunce on Vimeo.

By email, I asked Whit some questions about what New Paradise Laboratories is trying to do, and why. Here is the text of that fascinating interview, in full: 

Jason Gots: What was the original impulse behind NPL? It's interesting that you're trying to transform theater in this way, while up in New York "Sleep No More" is going in a different direction, but seemingly on a similar impulse to create new ways of getting through to audiences...grabbing them by the throat as it were...

Whit MacLaughlin: Interesting question.

Yes I think people are hungering for experience, immersion and the discoveries that can unfold inside such experiences. I’ve noticed that art museums, for instance, are integrating an experiential component into their exhibitions. The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (notice it doesn’t bill itself as a museum) has a relatively new building that has an amusement park feel—the building itself is an “attraction”—an immersive social space that also happens to strongly feature work that has an experiential component.

NPL from the beginning was a company that thought of theatre-going purely as experience. Old school NPL performances were loud, elliptical, and visceral, like rock concerts. Think Bowie or Pink Floyd in the days when bands started upping the theatrical ante—but of course we weren’t that big. We were a feverish mash-up of images and sound—not many words. But we incorporated big ideas and had a philosophical bent.

It was natural for us to consider the Internet as a place to put theatre. We weren’t interested in broadcasting—that is, employing the web to increase our reach with what we were already doing. We were interested in finding a web-based narrative language. Pointillist. Investigative. We liked the “down the rabbit hole” effect and wanted to engender that same frame of mind—we wanted to entice people to fall in. We started to conceive and write with that objective in mind.

Eventually, we started wondering about the where of cyberspace. Where was it, relative to our bodies? Second Life was literalizing the spatial-ness of online experience—we were more intrigued by the metaphor of space online. And how it went both ways. If there was a metaphoric cyberspace, was there leakage from the cyber-world into realspace? Was there a place in the everyday spatial world that could become like internet space? We started thinking about the ways that theatre—as conventionally practiced—was virtual. And we exported the web backwards into realspace—conceptually, that is.

So, in Extremely Public Displays of Privacy, we used smart phones to deliver theatre into a real world urban setting. Audience members followed characters down the street into a spatialized realm where actual stuff in the world refracted backwards into fiction. We smashed the cyber world right up against and into the physical one. It was like cheap Augmented Reality.

JG: Is NPL "theater on the web", or something new/else entirely? 

WM: I’m not sure. If you think of theatre as a live event that happens in front of people in a specific place, then—well—I still can’t say. We’re making something that’s theatre-ish. If you imagine that theatre has live elements and that it can happen in a “site” (not a darkened single-purpose space), then, yes, we are making theatre. It has been written that the liveness of theatre is transforming. A Broadway show these days might incorporate so much video—something performed and captured in another time frame from the live performance—that one might question its credentials as live. Those shows exhibit “liveness”. For example, Green Day’s American Idiot.

I might argue that Sleep No More exhibits “liveness”. It’s structured very much like a video game. I spent a fair bit of time walking through rooms without actors—rooms with lots of clues but no performance, per se. I was so live in the show—with my search for the show—that some of the show itself felt a bit preloaded by comparison. I don’t mean this as a criticism; I also had a really transcendent moment during the experience that appeared as an accident.

It should be noted that video games are not live—they just incorporate a vast number of twists and turns into their rat maze. My life is not fully live, actually. It’s sort of rat maze-ish too when you come right down to it.

One interesting thought: conventional theatre is a situation where live actors traverse a virtual environment (with set design, artificial light, costumes, and fictional historical period). Our act two of Extremely Public Displays used pre-recorded “virtual” actors to lead audience through a totally live world.

So maybe NPL is “bizarro-world” theatre. The standard tropes are turned inside out.

JG: What questions or themes are you tending/trying to address in your work? Is this about the experience of living online? 

WM: NPL is very interested in physical presence, both in our older work and in our internet-based stuff. We love the perceptual charge you get from seeing a person live, in the flesh, living and breathing with you, inside a fiction. The room is thick with presence (in some theatre—and weirdly devoid of presence in some theatre as well). Is there an analogy to that perception of presence in cyberspace? Can a form of web communication be thick with presence? With essence? With soul? Big question: Is there soul in cyberspace?

If not, I imagine we better get busy and import it.

Look at it this way. If the invention of the printing press is indeed analogous to the development of the Internet, then the novel--a form of soul capture in paper and ink—might provide us with a structural analogy to web-fiction. Nobody has totally figured out the novel and it’s been around, in Europe at least, since Cervantes. We’ve got some time to figure out our online situation. But it’s going to get harder to create a real fictional genre in cyberspace. Cyber-real estate is being rapidly bought up and cordoned off by commercial interests.

JG: What techniques or innovative solutions has NPL invented or adapted to create new affective experiences online? 

WM: We have started by roping in already existing online tools—social media, where people are getting pretty skilled at recognizing authenticity, webcam-based first-person conversation, music video, tumblr photo blogs, and short bursts of written narrative, a la twitter. We pull these together into a multi-faceted pointillist structure. You maybe have to be pretty crafty with these tools to avoid getting frustrated by our work. Some people bounce off, but many others get sucked in and investigate obsessively for hours—we try to make our fiction run deep.

I have been fascinated by one particular online personality—Imp Kerr—who is known for the redesigns of American Apparel ads that she created and posted in realspace all over Manhattan—they were porn-y and mistaken for the real thing. (American Apparel eventually picked up her design ideas and ran with them themselves.) She still maintains a deep presence online, with a couple of blogs, a FB page, and a ‘corporate’ website. Fact? Fiction? I think I know, but the ambiguity is fascinating. There’s also Megacycles.turmblr.com, which is a crazy deep edifice created by someone named Bill Hitchert. I’ve tracked it for a while, I’m his Facebook friend, and I’m still not sure how fact and fiction co-mingle in that work.

We’ve borrowed from those folks in our cyber-pieces by stretching the boundaries of fiction and non-fiction, inviting audience members to join in with us. 10,000 people got involved with us in our FATEBOOK piece, which we consider good numbers for a small experimental theatre company.

And now we have FRAME, our performance-based institutional website, at newparadiselaboratories.org. The URL leads you to our web-presence, but once there, what you mostly get is a window into the world through the NPL lens. We just passed the 30,000 visits mark with that—and remember we were previously a theatre company that was lucky to score 1500 hits in a given year on our institutional website.

JG: How do you account for the non-captive nature of an online audience? Effective theater can be disturbing, but you can't really run out of a theater. At home, however, users might react immediately to anything unpleasant or challenging by simply switching websites. 

WM: You got me there. I don’t know how to answer, except to remind myself that we are working to create an art form—or maybe transfer an art form—into a new kind of space. We have to keep trying, keep inventing and grow as the potential audience grows. People get better and better at reading the Internet. There has to be room for complex, challenging, and fun expressions to develop and proliferate. But there is also a need for the kind of venture capital that funds things like Tumblr to exist in the not-for-profit sector. And for really patient funders.

 

Follow Jason Gots (@jgots) on Twitter

 

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