The Powerpoint adventures of a red square invite Robert Reid into a bizarre alternative world
There has been a square red envelope on my desk for a few days now: bright and insistent, urgent, even. My name is written on it in anxiety-thin white paint pen – just my first name, no time for formalities. The red squareness of it, understatedly out of place in my house just enough to be something from another world.
A doorway to a flatter brighter dimension. A big red button screaming “press me” while I do the dishes and finish administrative stuff that needs attending to. It was delivered a few days ago now, quietly left at my front door and announced with a text to my phone. I found the red square resting on the bright blue tiles of the outside table.
Now I open it. A red USB falls out from the envelope. This is what I’m expecting, it carries the files to play on the computer: a Powerpoint presentation featuring the adventures of a red square.
There’s also a sticker of a horse’s head on a set of naked running human legs, which I really hope is the PonyCAM logo, and a note from the Ponies explaining that “this Powerpoint has been our way of connecting with each other throughout this past year”.
Ooh… it glows satisfyingly red when you plug it in. I mean – they all do that, but this one, with its already red body, is super red. It flashes disconcertingly any time it interacts with the machine. It makes itself excitedly present. First the prologue, a pdf doc, welcome and instructions which are clear and good-humored – and hooray, that running horse head thing is at the bottom of the page too, so it might be their logo after all.
A red square falls in love, has children and commits suicide, destroying the family. The little red square was having surreal dreams, into which we fall through the magic of the power point animation. There’s some disturbing imagery – they’re not kidding when they warn you that it’s graphic. Nothing NSFW exactly, but – depending on how suggestible and detailed your imagination is – prepare to see whatever it is you think you’re going to see.
They say there will be sound, but mine doesn’t seem to have any, which makes the first act creepier. I’m reminded equally of the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine cartoon and the fast forward of Alex’s bedroom in A Clockwork Orange. The dreams of the red square seem to overwhelm the first act, culminating in a screenshot of a desktop cracking open and the red square emerging, apparently from inside the screen
Not to nitpick: but how amazing would it have been if there was some code here that could have screencapped the user’s actual desktop so the red square emerges for that moment of comprehension, in the real world with us. Or at least, on the threshold to it.
The second act is no less chaotic and adventure-filled. Of course, that may be the speed at which I watch it. I fly through, pausing for film and audio, stopping and going back to look at things that I think needed more attention. The animation is jerky like old fashioned stopmotion. It’s remarkable how well the Powerpoint format lends itself to animation.
Like the Felix the Cat films of the ’30s, it’s obsessed with its medium as much as the content. A red square chases after the little red square. The red square uses all the resources available on the laptop, google searching “where is my child” and “Find Red Square”, which sometimes lead to some more graphically confronting material. It’s incredible how suggestive a set of red squares can be.
The adventure of searching for the little red square is by turns Finding Nemo, Taken and conspiracy theory, with some brutal shootouts and a chorus of dancing demons wearing Liam Neeson’s face in a grand guignol to close the act.
In atc three the red square seems to have developed an obsession with Liam Neeson: poring over Neeson’s Wikipedia page, imagining the moments of his life. It now reminds me a little of Being John Malkovich. The red square searches for knives to buy and then uses them to steal Neeson’s face. The red square understands that Neeson in an actor, and so learns about being an actor. It’s a new life form, learning about the world of humans by landing on bits of information and extrapolating on them along algorythmic pathways of knowledge making.
Red square goes to an acting school website and sucks all the knowledge out of the page. It devours the cover art from acting guides, gets head shots, auditions for Hamlet, fails the audition circuit and ends up doing porn. It’s a harried and beleaguered life…. But doing the porn seems to make enough money to go back to uni to retrain as a teacher. Good luck holding on to that backup job, my acting red square comrade.
The wildly veering narrative just keeps ploughing forward. In a depressing reflection of Bojack Horseman world, now Red Square is making a solo performance developed for and presented as part of the Melbourne Fringe festival at the new La Mama.
The performance of “Where is my child” is received to great acclaim by an audience that disturbingly all have an old photo of my own head superimposed onto every one of them. I hope we each got our own heads. It’s creepy, and at the same time a bit needy, to show me a picture of me applauding the show. It’s a bit like being told at a high volume, you like this show, you really do, you like this show.
Even this is not where it ends. I’ve been feeling like this has all been the story of how one red square taking their grief at the loss of a child and making into art for a fringe show. But that show then becomes wildly successful. Lin-Manuel Miranda signs on to play the part of red square.
There are Hollywood films and eventually a work developed with the real Liam Neeson (which seems to be rehearsed at the Arts Centre Melbourne’s State Theatre). This process seems to go badly, because the red square goes on a GTA5-style rampage in the streets, dodging police cars all the way back to their penthouse to cry and look at old pictures of themselves as a child and thenreturning to maybe commit suicide by cop.
And then there’s a long-held head and shoulders shot of the red square on a white background, looking back out at us the audience. I sense exhaustion. Bewilderment. I feel like the red square might look like Joaquin Pheonix.
To use such simple shapes and familiar images in a frenetic stream of consciousness narrative is both Dadaist collage and Warner Brothers-level mayhem. To create such a vivid, action-filled and bizarre universe in Powerpoint is an incredible feat. And if you told me this was someone’s lockdown project to keep from going crazy during the pandemic, I’d certainly believe you.
A Red Square, created and presented by Pony Cam. Melbourne Fringe. Until November 29. Bookings