Holesp@ce, from multi-disciplinary collective STRANGEkit, is a surreal tour through our hyperconnected present, says Robert Reid
A few people have commented on some of my recent articles and reviews about using of social media and the internet as spaces in which to make theatre. They suggest that theatre online isn’t “real theatre”, arguing that the important thing about theatre is physical presence – that if we aren’t sharing the same physical space with each other and the performers, it’s not a “real” experience.
I don’t entirely disagree. The presence of the audience, reacting to the work being presented and sharing those moments of reaction, is a vital part of the theatre experience. But this also describes the presence of a live audience in a cinema too – and that’s not “real theatre” either. The relationship between an audience and an artwork is a kind of litmus test of where this community, on this particular night, stands in relation to who we are and what we believe. Theatre is praxis – on this I couldn’t agree more.
However, I’m suspicious of the commentary that sometimes accompanies these defences of “real theatre” against the encroachments of technology. They have a lot in common with the complaints that being Friends on Facebook isn’t the same thing as being friends in “real life.” I think they sometimes reflect the kind of anxieties that are always attendant on the development of new technology, representing a conservatism that has been a drag on the development of Australian performance in digital spaces for years.
So, on to Holesp@ce by multi-disciplinary collective, STRANGEkit – part of Monash Uni Student Theatre (MUST) – which is a disconcerting digital reflection on hyperconnectivity, disconnection and experience.
The company describes Holesp@ce as a treasure hunt and a maze – an interactive, hyperlinked experience through the digital realms. Developed by the company from a concept by Georgie Bright, Holesp@ce is, for a long-time netizen like myself, at once refreshingly optimistic and deeply nostalgic.
There’s a lot of the aesthetic of web 1.0 here; many of the pages have the look of late ’90s Geocities sites, and the experience of progressing through the maze from link to link reminds me of the old Schwaa and Homestar Runner sites. Following the breadcrumbs takes the viewer from platform to platform, bouncing from YouTube to Facebook to Instagram to Pinterest and back again. Old school aesthetics with a fluid social media sensibility.
The first page instructs us to click anything clickable. There’s an expanding circle of odd clip art looking images. There’s Pepe the frog, what looks like maybe a burrito or a Chimichanga, a scented candle, a thumbs-up icon and more. A rabbit skips along at the bottom. I try to click it, hoping for a rabbit hole: it seems to skip away from the cursor but I think I’m just too slow. The only thing that is clickable is the large “NEXT” in bright yellow on black.
It YouTube and a video tutorial called “My Makeup is alive!!!_Not CLICKB@IT!!!”, in which Georgie Bright presents a make-up tutorial. She begins byrunning through different takes on welcoming us to her new video. The smile across her face seems a little too tight, a little manic, exposing a lot of teeth. Statements flash across the screen as she talks, insisting that the video has not been sponsored and urging us at the same time to use her promo code for 20 per cent off a make-up product called Morphay. Bright is in a white walled bedroom, a plain grey blanket across the bed behind her, a black table lamp peaks into frame. A white t-shirt hangs from her shoulders. Everything is washed out and dull; even her red hair is almost colourless. This is how the world feels around me right now too.
The tutorial proceeds in youtubery fashion, all awkward smash cuts and repetition, filters and self-awareness. She reminds me a little of Grace Helbig, cheerful and self-deprecating. The sound gets out of synch and she’s interrupted by a foot opening a drawer to reveal spring rolls hidden inside. This becomes a commercial in which Callum Robertson insists we buy Jubilee spring rolls. They seem to have a hallucinogenic quality. I’m not paying $24.39 for spring rolls, what are you crazy?
We return then to the makeup tutorial which is maybe on another day, because Bright’s costume has changed and the lighting is darker. Her footage has been erased, she tells us, and then represents her jump cutty instructions for how to apply eye shadow, occasionally interrupting herself to inform us smugly that she’s “such a mess”. I think this what’s reminding me of Helbig.
Necks are weird, Bright tells us before she’s interrupted by her own neck taking over control of her, throwing her head back, to complain that necks are unfairly treated by modern society and have been all the way back to the Elizabethan ruff. The neck then goes on strike and makes its exit, leaving Bright on camera, disturbingly without her neck.
After another commercial for spring rolls, the YouTube algorithm takes me to “Nowf8is TV Live Stream”, a three dimensional video of an American charismatic preacher. I watch a minute or two of him quoting scripture that seems to support tithing, before I decide this is probably not what STRANGEKit wants me to watch next. I click back and notice the link in the comments section. There are several comments below complaining about the weird adds, the fact the discount code doesn’t work and wondering if anyone else has gotten their spring rolls, as well as defending necks. I really hope at least these are real but I suspect its all the STRANGEkit crew continuing the story.
The next link takes me to Vimeo. A band containing the cliparty images from the first screen stretches across the window before the video starts, and now the smiling lips are highlighted. So, this is our progress marker to tell us how far into the maze we have come. Now the STRANGEkit team dance to glitch dance pop rhythms in front of varying bizarre Zoom backgrounds. Their dancing bodies glitch in and out of the images in that way Zoom does when it can’t cope with the movement or it thinks you’re the same tone as your background. They might be doing the Macarena at one point. That’s so adorable, none of them can have been alive when that was a thing. I’m so old.
The links below offer you to option of downloading your own STRANGEkit Zoom backgrounds. I choose the “murder for rent” option (because the way employment for sessional is looking I may have to do just that in the near future) and get a wooden room filled with matches, birds, rings and abstract poetry that includes fragments like “there’s no more sun”, “There’s only one man left in a thousand” and “there’s only one tropic left out of two”. The link also encourages the downloader to use these backgrounds for shaking up uni or work meetings, which I’m sorely tempted to do.
On to Instagram, and a series of hidden images one must swipe on to discover. Each of them are a loop of strangely hypnotic gifs interrupted by distortion or filters, and are accompanied by calming sound tracks (Michelle Nguyen). Fish in a pond, Tallulah McKenzie combing her hair, a candle flame, a sun set. There’s a hidden message here, but I won’t spoil the fun of finding it.
The next page is once again a “click anything clickable” game. This page looks the most like it’s been created by a late ’90s boomer who got really into Geocities and added every gif and clip art they could find to their site. Most of the links can be clicked on. A gif of a falling person wrapped in a blanket takes you to a petition to help save the Monash CTP. The word “Genesis” takes you to Keanu Reeves’ Wikipedia page. I trawl the entry but I don’t find any changes or edits. There’s an embedded video of a flip phone, on which Casuarina O’Brien instructs us how to film anything or everything for the internet.
I’m mildly amused that this section is represented by the Pepe the Frog icon. With its creepy right wing and QAnon associations, it seems apt as the marker for a page that considers the the legality of filming in public to create a record of “the truth”.
The exit link here takes you to a Google doc Excell spreadsheet that encourages you to play a soundcloud link while exploring the spreadsheet. The spreadsheet uses fragments of text and graphs to document a relationship turning sour. It’s the saddest data I’ve seen in a long while. It turns, drifting apart into raw statistics and charts, little grabs of conversations that are familiar from a million arguments and passive aggressive retorts. All the moments when the bloom came off the rose. There’s a happy birthday message that particularly stings.
On Facebook next, we watch as STRANGEkit crew drink things, and demonstrate products for the camera. At this point, I’m starting to get fatigued – this is probably an experience that you need to pace yourself through. It’s overwhelming, there are so many images and sounds and ideas. It’s rather like running through a museum of modern art as fast as you can while trying not to blink so you see every single artwork at once. They’re trying on shoes and cleaning up a broken egg in a surreal layering of images that fade in and out of each other while telling the camera why they think they’re good people. It grows to a cacophonous conclusion.
After this we return to the google drive for a set of sound files. This is the Roast Bank, a list of recorded insults that are variously witty, or not. There’s nothing too offensive – just half-hearted attempts at clever putdowns, the kind you’d find in one of those collected jokes books in the Humour section of a discount bookshop. There’s a flatness to their delivery, maybe coming from the tinny speaker, that makes them about as funny as comedy roasts on TV. Which is not very.
Finally, we visit a Tumblr page, where window after window of bizarre images open and begin to play all at once. Spacey techno plays and we’re encouraged to shift the windows around to look at them. A close-up of a cake being made. A baby on phone. Computer text typing out fragments of messages and conversations. A crystal ball. A list of predetermined text message responses. Each video is dated, covering a little less than a week in late September, sometimes posted on the same days.
Then as a curtain call, we’re taken to a group of Sims avatars sitting outside in chairs arranged in a circle outside in a suburban back yard. They all sit ramrod straight, in that digitally awkward way that our Sim selves adopt when they’re not being forced to emote. The names of each of the STRANGEkit hover above their avatars heads.
The whole thing has a kind of Dadaist feel to it. Or perhaps more like fluxus. It’s jokey, awkward, found fun as art, with a dark, slightly arch sense of humour underneath. It hints at a dark world with a dark narrative, but never puts the pieces together for us – it simply spills them out before us, out onto our desktops.
It’s a dislocating experience, a kind of digital society of the spectacle for a 2020 iso world. It harnesses social media spaces, wallows in them and creates a hyper-opera.
Holesp@ce, directed by Celina Mack and Savanna Wegman, based on a concept by Georgie Bright. Sound design and composition by Michelle Nguyen, content created and performed by Georgie Bright, Celina Mack, Tallulah McKenzie, Michelle Nguyen, Casuarina O’Brien, Liam Paternott, Callum Robertson, Chloe Selsick, Logan Trask and Savanna Wegman. Presented by STRANGEkit, Monash Uni Stdeut Theatre, at www.strangekit.com