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Marianne Weems, co-founding artistic director of The Builders Association, was head of graduate directing at Carnegie Mellon University and is currently developing CMU’s Integrative Media Program in New York.
Did social media penetrate the screen, or did our culture embrace the surface?
“I am a deeply superficial person.” I think this quotation from Andy Warhol announces the vertiginous plunge into surface as depth. It exemplifies our yearning to occupy televisual space, to be seen on the screen. Since Andy’s pronouncement and the rise of television culture, that yearning has moved with relative rapidity from passively watching television to participating in reality television to broadcasting yourself on YouTube.
Video art and theater experimentation began with television screens in the early 1960s (Nam June Paik, early ’80s Gretchen Bender) and carried forward into using projection screens (Bill Viola), then into projecting onto sculptural surfaces (Gary Hill, Tony Oursler, Asymptote), and finally into the purely digital realm.
The screen has developed a kind of plasticity, allowing us to deepen, stretch, and cover space while still maintaining its intrinsic 2-D surface quality.
After centuries of picturing knowledge in vertical terms, we moved to the lateral. Media is slippery or spreadable, dispersing content widely through both formal and informal networks, some approved, many unauthorized. Stickiness has been the measure of success in the broadcast era (and has been carried over to the online world), but spreadability describes the ways in which content travels through social media.1
People tell me that the Builders Association’s multimedia productions have been “ahead of the curve” in combining media and performance. In contrast to commercial theater’s use of technology as backdrops and set pieces, I believe that a performance cannot include technology for technology’s sake but should incorporate media to deeply reflect the issues, questions, and stories of modern life. Using technology to talk about technology embodies my form of cultural critique. For example, in our production of Super Vision (2005), an actor begins the performance each night by presenting a real, data-driven demographic analysis of that night’s audience, highlighting which economic class is sitting in which section of the theater. She points out that the biggest breadwinners occupy the more expensive seats in the orchestra and that the highest seats in the balcony are generally occupied by the 99 percent. She provokes the audience to consider their positions, even before the show has begun, and how new technology allowed her to have information about them in the first place. This demographic breakdown was generated nightly by processing the zip codes of ticket buyers using a commercial market research tool (Claritas); it is an analysis done to each of us many times daily, but it is rarely “staged” in the theater. These metamedia themes have carried forward throughout my career; my aim has been to creatively represent the economic, political, and technological forces that affect us daily—to “make the invisible visible” through the generative potential of multimedia theater.
Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green, Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture (New York: NYU Press, 2013). ↩
Julia Scher, Security by Julia, 1988.
Gretchen Bender, Total Recall, 1987.
Judith Barry, IMAGINATION, Dead Imagine, 1990.
Richard Foreman, Film is Evil: Radio Is Good, 1987.
John Jesurun, Snow, 2000.
Gob Squad, Gob Squad’s Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good), 2007.