This Taiwanese-Australian collaboration is a multi-dimensional work that asks a lot of its audience, says Jinghua Qian
Virtual Intimacy, appropriately, begins online: in the foyer, we’re each given a QR code to scan, which opens a browser-based chat app. Then we file into the theatre, where we’re split into two seating banks on either side of the stage. Every second seat in the seating bank is tied up, so no two audience members will be seated adjacent to each other. It’s unclear whether this is a COVID-19 precaution, a tactic to mask a sparse crowd, or a design element intended to mimic the social distancing we experience as a result of being forever online.
Projections on both sides of the stage flash words in contrasting colours: “hot” in black text on a red background, and on the opposite wall, “not” in red text on a black background. Some of the terms are the familiar binaries of queer male hookup apps: top/bottom, 一/零, masculine/feminine, submissive/dominant, 哥/第, Asian/Caucasian, serious/casual, and so on. Others are more left-field: authenticity and representation, hope and despair. You face your fellow audience members while the words square off against each other, competing for your attention and fealty, seducing you into choosing a side. Top or bottom? Hope or despair?
‘Like a pocket watch with a glass case, Virtual Intimacy shows its workings: here, research, development and performance are entwined’
It’s a provocative and effective interpellation, and a fitting start to an experience that invites increasing vulnerability from the audience. It’s also a neat entry point into a work that turns on both contrast and collaboration.
Created by Very Theatre, a Taiwanese organisation that works across performance, video art, and exhibitions, and ActNow Theatre, a South Australian company focused on socially conscious performance projects, Virtual Intimacy was developed with male-identifying queer community members in Melbourne. A rotating cast of these community members appears onstage alongside actors Jason Marsiglia and Shih-Yi Tseng and directors Edwin Kemp Attrill (ActNow) and Tung-Yen Chou (Very), who refers to this project as an ‘arranged marriage’ – Asia TOPA creative director Steven Armstrong suggested that Edwin and Yen pair up, and this production is the baby they produced.
Virtual Intimacy examines queer hookup culture and how technology shapes us and our connection to others. With dialogue and text in both English and Chinese, recorded footage, multiple cameras recording live footage, surtitles, some live interpretation, and a chat app developed by Samantha E. Schaffer, it’s a technically complex production. Yet the stage is bare but for a large lightbox, and the performers appear to wear their own clothes and their own names, creating a kind of high-tech yet lo-fi, screen-mediated experience that feels very true to the contemporary moment. You know, watching a show in your pyjamas while casually scrolling your feeds and looking up the actors on IMDb.
The structure of the show replicates this kind of metatextual, multi-screen engagement. Like a pocket watch with a glass case, Virtual Intimacy shows its workings: here, research, development and performance are entwined. We have Yen and Edwin sitting on stage as recorded footage shows them talking about making the show we’re now watching. We have the chat app, in which we respond to questions like ‘When was the last time you had sex?’ and ‘When do you feel vulnerable?’. Edwin and Yen read out and occasionally translate our answers, which are also projected onto the walls. They also direct and redirect the actors. And we hear community members Kevin Chai, Jessi Lewis and Evander Wan share their stories of sex, intimacy, and digital queer culture, which they read aloud from their own phone screens, with surtitles above the stage translating the parts in Chinese. (By the way, the show is billed as “suitable for English and Mandarin speakers”, but much of the English dialogue goes untranslated.)
‘The fragmentary structure of the show introduces a lot of thoughts, experiences and feelings without really digging into them further’
Kevin, Jessi and Evander introduce themselves via a series of numbers representing their “digital footprints”: Unread messages. Uber rating. Apps installed. Instagram followers. Daily steps. Grindr matches. Missed calls. These numbers are a startling distillation of our virtual lives, and later, their stories reveal the anxiety and unmet yearning latent in so many digitally-facilitated interactions. Jessi’s bit on the continued pervasiveness of HIV stigma and racism is particularly moving, tapping into the ways that queer communities continue to produce and assign shame even as we proclaim pride.
But the fragmentary structure of the show introduces a lot of thoughts, experiences and feelings without really digging into them further. The audience and community members respond to similar prompts, but no one ever responds to each other. It’s an atomised experience, more like a survey than a conversation.
Compared to last year’s The Butch Monologues,which draws from queer community members’ stories to produce a symphony of butch experience, parts of Virtual Intimacy feel like unworked research. The rawness doesn’t quite square with the elaborate multi-screen experience, though there are some great moments, especially when people get loose on the app. It’s remarkable how generous audience members are, offering their anonymous memories and insecurities around kink, rejection, non-monogamy, exes, and commitment.
Given how awkward audience participation can be, this setup demonstrates how digital spaces can facilitate an openness that’s much trickier in the flesh. As an exploration of virtual intimacy, however, the project stops short of really investing in the digital world. The actors perform different versions of the same app-facilitated encounter, and they handle the repetition well, finding different energies – shy, sensuous, cold, jokey, blokey – in the brief scene. Chien-Yu Liu’s videography brings a romantic, music video gloss with slow-motion close-ups of hands touching and ghostly double exposures.
But centring this offline meeting reinforces the idea that it’s in fleshspace where things get real. In a time when so much queer community and culture is born, lives and dies online – especially trans culture, especially diasporic culture – this feels a little shallow. I’m not sure it makes sense anymore to see digital space as primarily a medium, a replica, or even a technology; a distinction between online and offline life is increasingly untenable, and sometimes, it’s IRL that serves as a fleeting signpost to draw us into the deeper intimacy of digital connection. I’m keen to see where this project could go if it really opens the floodgates to queer intimacy and community that begins and ends online, and sustains the conversation it’s started.
Virtual Intimacy, directed by Edwin Kemp Attrill and Tung-Yen Chou. Lighting by Rachel Lee and Dazai Chen. Sound by Hai-Ting Liao. Videography by Chien-Yu Liu. App developed by Samantha E Schaffer. Performed by Jason Marsiglia and Shih-Yi Tseng with community members Cameron Magusic, Evander Wan, Jessi Lewis, Jin Chong, Kevin Chai, Scotty So, and Ping Wen.
Very Theatre and ActNow Theatre at Martyn Myer Arena, Victorian College of the Arts (VCA), for Asia TOPA.