Reviews Performance Published 10 March 2013

Purge

Camden People's Theatre ⋄ 1st March 2013

Making unfriends.

Daniel B. Yates

Our two writers just returned from the show, Laura is sitting with a Macbook Air on the 1970s Mobilfabrik sofa eating pizza, Daniel is a few feet across the room at his desk.

Laura Jane Dean: I got home, I logged on to Facebook, I went to my friends list, clicked on someone at random and pressed delete, without pause and without thinking. It felt BRILLIANT.

Daniel B Yates: I would like to confirm that you are in actuality deleting your friends.  For me, there’s always a background desire to delete my entire Facebook but I know it would feel terrible, but liberating, but terrible. It’s a commonplace but still strange to me that you can delete these whole platforms, that there’s a button to pull the plug on these social experiential categories of being and histories of self; that suicide is much less terminal for us, we can die by inches, or platform presences. Do you think you could get addicted to deleting friends in the same way that we used to get addicted to adding them? Like, does the indviduated networked psyche have its own compulsions? The title of the piece Purge suggestions something like this, that there is a ritual cleansing that is on the one hand psychological, but also social, and hints at the restructuring of the two around the network. Tonight Brian Lobel seemed to be enjoying himself, with an audience interpolated as a temporary community and a kind of friendship court. Purge began a polite message to everyone on Lobel’s FB friends list notifying them of their imminent deletion, pending the decision of an audience, a process which occurred over fifty hours livestreamed, and then subsequently remodelled into this part-narrative driven version of the show, in which Lobel sits at a desk with his macbook pro open, shuffling between Prince’s version of Nothing Compared to You, FB and powerpoint, weaving a story of his former lover and friend Grant as a networked love, and giving us opportunities to vote “keep” or “delete” his friends in a very jovial mock trial.

LD: I’ve just deleted three more. I’m on a roll. So I was unsure at first of Lobel’s informalilty with us, the audience. Was he too chatty? Overly friendly? Watching him idly navigate his own facebook page as we took our seats and made ourselves comfortable felt odd, and perhaps a little voyeuristc.

DY: I once compared FB to drinking at a bustop: harshly lit and horribly designed, you’re only there because your mates are, and there’s a lingering suspicion of a CCTV cam in the bushes. On a more sophisticated tack, the performance artist Jesse Darling borrows Hannah Arendt’s terms to describe FB as constitutive of Homo Faber (“Man the Creator”), as the rather narrow triumph of the geeks and a reproducer of normative culture (she locates Arendt’s animal laborans in other platform-lives, less black-boxed, a more libidinal struggling public).  And so I really liked Lobel’s presence, specifically his bright preppy mateyness, for the way it eschewed Homo Faber for a straighter homo: gossipy, funny, and launched a smartly critical assault from here – which is important at a time where artists are jumping into bed with technologists and aren’t always perhaps offering the kind of critiques that will push these collaboration to bear real fruit.  Additionally, for me, he was pretty successful in whipping together this tiny temporary community in North London (but it could’ve been anywhere in the English-speaking world) and it was a convivial and non-spectatorial space, far from something like Dani Ploeger’s take on social media – and so there was this real sociality to his critique which is testament to a very non-narcissistic performance. But it was odd, because here you were being asked to make judgements on someone else’s facebook friends from the perspective of a group member, which really threw up a dissonance: I liked what was going on enough (non-coercive, intelligent) to accept it as a group, but it wasn’t the same thing as discussing a friend amongst friends and deciding tacitly or whatever that someone be ostracised from that group for whatever reason – and so as much as Lobel created this “togetherness” was his word, in the room, it really brought home just how much friendship is now navigated by private network decisions, and how the friendship model, for all the talk of the network’s theological powers of social connectivity, is possibly quite a poor version of the collective impulse, now we’ve learned so well how to be friending alone. I mean fine we’re networked individuals, and I don’t think Lobel is asking us to mourn anything, but he’s using the room to produce these tensions, without going so far as to suggest their transformation which would probably need a technologist.

LD: I did wonder at one point whether he had got to the stage in his life where he looked at his 1,351 friends on Facebook and realised that it was too much, the reality of a minority of face-to-face relationships existing within the mass and he wanted to purge. He wanted to sift through, tidy up and allow himself to feel a little lighter. But, as you say, doing that alone, that takes balls (and we know Lobel has spunk, if his previous work is anything to go by). For this kind of action, you need support, and what better support, than a room full of strangers, who you ask to hold your hand. He does return the favour though, inviting (on more than one occasion), volunteers from the audience to go on stage, and delete one of their own facebook friends. We all sat there, tensely, not wanting to be the one to go public with their personal purge but it transpired most people already have someone in mind, they’ve wanted to do it for ages but just never plucked up the courage. A few popped into my head straight away. I’ve just deleted ten more. I’m down to my Mum, a bisexual ex and my boss.

DY:  Please delete me, please; unfriend me all night. I liked the bit where he inferred no pets were deleted in the making of this show, which was frankly a mistake because pets are the equivalent of Victorian dressed-up dogs, and while their owners are convinced they’re just cute, all they’re doing is betraying this ghastly emotional neediness the Victorian’s would never have tolerated – progress, eh.

So there was a critique, in this invite to delete our friends live onstage, as you say, of our dependency on the connection and how the connection stands in for relationships, rationalises them at the same time as being a sort of mystical commitment.  And a critique of the those kind of colonial friendship enterprises where you chase numbers and validate yourself through the algorithim, measuring e-peen and waggling your aspidistra at your neighbours.  And what I got was that we’re not really thinking about the materiality of the connection – dominant uses like micro-celebrity, self-cartography, media witch-hunts, friendships and romantic love: these are the great unreflexive social idioms of our time, and that there is work to do in considering social media’s role in constituting groups, the politically imaginitive connection. It’s so easy to connect dots in our private universes, data map the constellations of our bowel movements and not think of what sort of vision of the social is being played out from within a rather narrow californian ideology. And so Lobel was inviting us to ask, what are friends for, how are relationships existing, and are friends the limits of our connective horizons?  Sitting on that seat I think I decided you need fam, you need revolutionary peers, and you need public – and that’s some neat self-fashioning, but then I am an arsehole like that. Can I ask what you thought of the titular court aspect? A purge and a showtrial; for me it worked as a structuring device but I couldn’t see many links being made to it as a political form.

LD: The last thing I saw titled Purge was Sofie Oksanan’s play about Soviet-occupied Estonia, and that was quite explicit (it also contained bathing, cleansing scenes). I think here  premise/promise of it being ‘part gameshow’ worked in terms of us being passively involved in the action without it feeling like enforced fun. However, after the initial novelty of holding up your Keep/Delete placard with a little buzz at being allowed to decide someone’s Facebook fate, although it was at times amusing and touching, it soon lost momentum, as you realised our action had no impact on Lobel’s action. We were there simply to guess what had gone before us, our opinion didn’t count and we were stripped of our powers as a court.

DY: Agreed – additionally I was unclear as to what had occurred in the previous performance, as Lobel appeared to be talking about unfriendings as if they were his decision, so it became a game of second-guessing him which felt a little like a dead-end. And the evidence Lobel was reading out from his defendants were superb vignettes of networked life, perhaps the participation killed some of the poetry.  Interesting to me that it quickly became clear that we very much were dealing with people, not just informorphic representations of people, so that there was some resistance from respondents to the artist using them for their work (the word “agency” cropped up twice), to the artist using the friendship as material (twice also, a “symbolic” dimension of friendship was invoked) so that the ethical considerations of the artist toward their subject were very present and still thrashing around for networked articulations, quite undecided, at the same time admitting just how much online sociality is embedded in daily lives.

LD: As we rode the tube home, I felt relatively unchanged. I think there was a place for the tender, reflective moments where Lobel recalled his relationship with Grant through it’s presence on social media sites (specifically Friendster) and how after his death, the fact that a part of their history remained online was something to cherish. Lobel’s reminiscence created moments of quiet within the performance, which reminded me of those points when you stop continually scrolling through news feeds, status updates, photos, comments, friends lists, friends of friends lists and you turn off your computer. But even in this quiet, I wasn’t moved towards any great realisation or shift in my beliefs, just an affirmation of everything I already knew. I want to delete all of my facebook friends, I want to delete my profile, I want to never have to feel the pull of needing to know what is happening in everyone else’s lives but I won’t and I can’t because I don’t want to miss out on anything. I don’t want to offend anyone, I don’t want to lose the sense of community, however distorted and if only ever digitally constructed, because then I would be alone. Fuck the network. I’m with Brian Lobel, let’s hold hands and purge the shit out of Facebook together.


Daniel B. Yates

Educated by the state, at LSE and Goldsmiths, Daniel co-founded Exeunt in late 2010. The Guardian has characterised his work as “breaking with critical tradition” while his writing on live culture &c has appeared in TimeOut London, i-D Magazine, Vice Magazine, and elsewhere. He lives and works in London E8, and is pleasant.

Purge Show Info


Cast includes Brian Lobel

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