<em>Santaman's Harvest</em> Yields Questions, or Does a Performance Happen if it Exists in a Virtual Forest?

Santaman's Harvest Yields Questions, or Does a Performance Happen if it Exists in a Virtual Forest?

2008-04-23

Adriene Jenik describes a project of virtual performances via avatars in online chat spaces.

During 1999-2000, Lisa Brenneis and I developed a three-act play called Santaman’s Harvest as part of our ongoing series of Desktop Theater experiments (1997-2002). For more than a year, Brenneis and I had been going on weekly performative forays into online visual chat spaces, primarily “the Palace” (an early publicly populated space originally designed by Jim Baumgarten). Visual chat spaces are web-based applications that developed parallel to massively multiplayer online games. They are essentially chat rooms where groups of people meet, but in addition to exchanges via text, participants in the chat exist as small images (aka “avatars”) situated within a larger background image, or “room.” The Palace was one of the earliest and most popular of these spaces, in part because of its decentralized organization, free and easy access, and the depth of its toolset.

We saw what we were doing with Desktop Theater as a type of “intentional performance” in the midst of the many less intentional or unintentional performances going on among the rest of the population. Taking cues from Augusto Boal’s inspired street theater exercises, Both The Theatre of the Oppressed (Boal 1985) and Games for Actors and Non-Actors (Boal 2002) were influential throughout the development of Desktop Theater. Boal’s broad approach to theater as a “kind of thinking,” his development of his own Arena, Forum, and Image Theatre techniques in public spaces and fora, and the dialogue that is instigated through his techniques were all reasons we felt our crude experiments could fall under the rubric of “theater.” and echoing the transitive nature of public pageants (a precursor to stage-based theater), we developed an investigatory practice that soon expanded to include scripts, costumes, staging, choreography, and even a troupe of remotely located actors.

The culmination of our more script-centered experiments, Santaman’s Harvest was an ambitious attempt to provoke a deeper discussion about genetic agriculture Our interest in this topic arose as a result of both of us relocating from L.A. to more “rural” areas (for myself, to a studio that I still maintain in the Mojave Desert, and for Lisa, to Ojai where she began farming avocados and tangerines with her husband). I began to consider, as I learned about life from the animals, native plants, and extreme weather, how important collective knowledge (acquired over time from a relationship with the land) is to humans. I was also becoming suspect of my own license to experiment artistically, even as I found myself advocating more oversight of scientific experiments with genetic material. I had also been questioning for some time the relationship between the rise of the English language as a result of computing practice and the globalized economy, and the coincident loss of diverse languages and cultures. It made sense to have a dialogue about these things with people who were on computers and therefore complicit in this overall dynamic cultural shift. within this public online space. The piece loosely choreographed eleven performers in four time zones, with portions of the piece being tightly scripted and other sections being open for improvisation. The newly formed Desktop Theater Troupe performed this three-act mor(t)ality play narrated by “The Prof” (a sexy, blue-haired avatar) with Santaman (a nine-faced corporate “head”), a tree, a TV camera, a farmer, three fluttering butterflies, and a few other surprises. The performers were writers, and visual and performing artists who were keen to experiment with a “new” form of drama.

Santaman’s Harvest was scheduled to be performed “doubly live” (i.e., performed “live” in the chat environment and projected into a “live” proximal audience) during the 1999 Digital Arts and Culture conference held in Atlanta, Georgia. In reflecting upon the piece, which was written and rehearsed over the course of a year, I’m struck by the gap between what was of interest to the audience in the auditorium and what was engaging to the player/performers in the virtual space.

Rather than have the proximal live audience just sitting in the theater watching the play unravel in virtual space, I thought we should try to engage the audience more as participants in the drama. To do so, a number of live computer terminals were placed throughout the auditorium setting. It should be noted that the piece occurred at night surrounded by a party event atmosphere. People in the auditorium were engaged and responsive, but the performer’s experiences of the piece was reflected in our green room time where the first question thrown down was, “What just happened?”

During the course of our rehearsals in the more populated Palaces (with this production we staged one act in our own server-hosted “Genetically Enhanced Palace”) we had ongoing unexpected encounters with chat-room denizens of all ages and stripes, as this short excerpt from a rehearsal log reveals.

(Note: ~COWBOY~ is not a Desktop Theater performer.)

farmer #1: huh Cowboy?
~COWBOY~: Howdy Yall
Sherman: corn is always safe
a tree: :We exist together or not at all.
farmer #1: pests got 20 percent of my crop
a tree: :corn comes and goes
Sherman: Welp they got 30% o mine
~COWBOY~: hey gusy i dont guess i could get that av frem yall
farmer #1: Another year like last and we’re done.
a tree: AVs come and go
Sherman: What can we do?
~COWBOY~: thanks!@!!
farmer #1: sure
a tree: Leave me here in the sun and rain
farmer #1: Another year like last and we’re done.
a tree: Leave me here in the sun and rain
~COWBOY~: where yall frem
farmer #1: cuntry
farmer #1: you?
~COWBOY~: me to
Sherman: marlboro country
farmer #1: lol
farmer #1: Hey, have you heard about the new Roundup Ready corn?
Sherman: Tell me more?
a tree: :oy gevalt
farmer #1: Like other Roundup Ready seed products, Roundup Ready corn is genetically improved to be tolerant to in crop applications of Roundup Ultra herbicide.
a tree: crops come and go …
a tree: I remember
farmer #1: Used as part of the Roundup Ready Corn Weed Control system, it provides a revolutionary and unique weed control option for corn growers.
a tree: be tolerent of revolutionary and unique corn growers
~COWBOY~: corns to much dam werk
farmer #1: yeah
farmer #1: you said it
~COWBOY~: wheat or sorghum
farmer #1: you grow?
farmer #1: a farmerboy?
~COWBOY~: hell ya
Held in the public space, rehearsals in this medium were the equivalent of a micro performance, as we practiced working with our avatars and lines, as well as responding to folks (in character) who come there to be social.

Being “inside” the piece (and the culture of the online public arena) and being “outside” of this culture in the physically proximal public space produced an utterly different experience of the piece. Projecting the output from the shared virtual space into an auditorium, and scattering live performance-ready terminals throughout the audience, completely shifted the space of creative play. The initial instincts of the people who sat at the terminals were to push at the edges of the performance, and attempt to achieve their own level of virtuosity through cleverness (which is well rewarded in such an environment scaled to the “quip”). As logs, videotape, and memory bear out, audience subversion was most compellingly expressed among the regular visitors to the chatspace, since they already had some skill at expressing themselves in the medium. The stumbles and snipes of the proximal audience drew the most immediate and “lively” responses in the space of the auditorium.

As Brenneis recalls of her experience of the piece, “There were reasons this was probably not going to work; the meat audience had no idea what was expected of them and had no ‘Palace skills.’ They had never seen the play before and the story was unfamiliar to them. The terminals were in the audience, daring them to participate. I think the result was kinda what you’d expect. We got better audience subversion in ‘Godot’ and ‘BushGore’ because folks were in the palace and they had some skill at expressing themselves.”

These observations present a challenge for the future of such experiments. How can we fully take into account the power of “liveness” in replaying archived documents? Can these public/private performative encounters support documentation and critique? By what methods do we judge the aesthetic developments in such multilayered and ceaselessly dynamic engagements? Does one networked performance practice have much to offer others in the way of analysis, or are these, by their nature in close relationship to a particular form factor, completely isolated, hermetic practices?

As Brenneis reflects, “The DT documentation does have aesthetic and sentimental value for me, and others may view the stills and logs and enjoy their own fantasies of what our experiments were like, but we the participants are the only ones who can truly reflect on our body of work.” Comments on this essay, September 2005.

Santaman’s Harvest Scene 1 script

Dramatis Personae:
PROFESSOR
TREE
FARMER 1
FARMER 2
SANTAMAN

PROLOGUE
Professor:
! Listen up!
All you drugged First World Citizens!
you cubicled misanthrops,
You gamers, you clubbers,
you yearners for a purpose.

Listen as closely as you can.
We’ll do our best to get beyond your bipolarity,
you’re A D D.

We are interrupting your chatting to bring you Santaman’s Harvest.
A tale of food, health and hope;
A tale of seed, weed, and greed.

Your attention economy is about to go bankrupt,
You might as well follow me.

PROFESSOR EXITS
SCENE ONE
PALACE MANSION - FIREWORKS I
TREE & FARMER1

TREE (Whispering slowly):
Leave me here in the soil and sun and rain
and I will grow.
Take from me no more than what you need.
I am not a trunk road or a branch line.
We exist together or not at all.
FARMER 1 (thinking to himself):
: Finally, a break.

: The harvest is over.
: Everything’s gone to market.
TREE (Whispering):
LEAVE me here in the soil and sun and rain
and I will grow.

Take from me no more than what you need.
FARMER 1 (thinking to himself):
: Finally, a break.

: To think I only just broke even after all that work.
TREE (whispering):
We exist together or not at all.
ENTER FARMER #2
Farmer2:
how’d your crops do this year?

farmer #1:
: finally
farmer #1:
huh?
farmer #1:
oh you

a tree:
:i am alive

farmer #1:
crops did ok

Farmer2:
grow anything good?

farmer #1:
: bad actually
farmer #1:
corn was ok

a tree:
:we exist together

farmer #1:
: corn was pest ridden

Farmer2:
How’d your soy do?

a tree:
:or not at all

farmer #1:
soy was ok
farmer #1:
:soy was pest ridden

Farmer2:
:Mine sucked

a tree:
:pests are good food

farmer #1:
how bout yours?

a tree:
: I like borers

Farmer2:
Excellent.

farmer #1:
yeah
farmer #1:
mine too

farmer #1:
how’s your herd?

Farmer2:
Fine, And yours?

a tree:
:leave me here

farmer #1:
: problems
farmer #1:
oh they’re great
farmer #1:
just great

Farmer2:
Great.

a tree:
:here in the soil and soy and rain

farmer #1:
cows and wife
farmer #1:
and pigs

a tree:
: and i will grow

farmer #1:
and chickens
farmer #1:
and kids
farmer #1:
all great

Farmer2:
:not

farmer #1:
: yeah, right, great

a tree:
:where are my leaves?

Farmer2:
I guess we’re the lucky ones.

Long Silence
Farmer2:
Say, have you heard about Roundup Ready seed products?

Roundup Ready corn is genetically improved to be tolerant to in crop applications of Roundup Ultra herbicide.
Farmer2:
Used as part of the Roundup Ready Corn Weed Control systemit provides a revolutionary and unique weed control option for corn growers.
a tree:
ook flee flee flee flee

farmer #1:
yeah
farmer #1:
sounds good

a tree:
ook flee flee flee flee
a tree:
:scared

farmer #1:
: boy, things sure are diffrent

Farmer2:
Round up ready made my youngest grow seven feet in a year.

a tree:
: pests make good pets

farmer #1:
: finally a break

a tree:
: ook flee

farmer #1:
: some quiet

a tree:
: ook flee

Farmer2:
:maybe I’ll go watcha little tv

farmer #1:
yeah, thanks

a tree:
:yeah

farmer #1:
I’ll try it out

Farmer2:
:yeah:

farmer #1:
: sure

a tree:
:borers you are about to be down sized
a tree:
:scared

farmer #1:
: finally
farmer #1:
: a break

SANTAMAN:
)DEBUT
ahem

farmer #1:
who’re you?
sman::
Mister Farmer
sman::
you look down

farmer #1:
just takin a break

sman::
Mister Farmer
sman::
you remind me of
sman::
!MY Dad!!!!!

farmer #1:
oh yeah?
farmer #1:
was he always tired?

sman::
yes, but he never showed it

farmer #1:
oh

sman::
friend

farmer #1:
: friend?

sman::
friend
sman::
have you thought about the future friend?

farmer #1:
huh?

sman::
the future

farmer #1:
future?
farmer #1:
my future?

sman::
your future
sman::
friend?

farmer #1:
sure
farmer #1:
I guess I’ll be farming

sman::
because I WANT YOU TO think ABOUT IT

farmer #1:
yeah?
farmer #1:
:why

sman::
Think Big

farmer #1:
big?

sman::
!Think Bio!!!!!

farmer #1:
: why?

sman::
buy oh

farmer #1:
Bio?

sman::
buy o tech no lo gee

farmer #1:
I’ve heard about that

sman::
!Good

farmer #1:
why?

sman::
Because I have your future all planned out for you!!!

farmer #1:
yeah?

sman::
You lucky farmer!

farmer #1:
: hmmmm

sman::
I happen to like farmers,
sman:
and I am 110 per cent serious about helping you
become more
: I’m a genius.
farmer:
:hmmm
sman:
!More than your father ever hoped for you

farmer:
:my father
farmer:
:he had great hopes for me

sman:
He would want you to think about the future

farmer:
yes
farmer:
you are right

sman:
Well then - let me show you!
sman:
i have magic seed
)APPLAUSE

farmer:
: oh brother

sman:
did you hear that?

farmer:
yeah?

sman:
I said
sman:
i have magic seed
)APPLAUSE

farmer:
:wow
sman::
see?

farmer #1:
do it again

sman::
magic seed
sman::
)APPLAUSE

sman::
! No more pests!
No more weeds!

!Drought tolerant!
Frost-resistant!

!Softer cotton!
Sweeter beets!

!Taller trees!
Fatter pigs!

!Prettier flowers!
Smarter children!

We do it all with genes!
farmer #1:
!

farmer #1:
)Applause
farmer #1:
! wow

farmer #1:
that sounds great

farmer #1:
wow
farmer #1:
: wow

sman::
and you lucky farmer
sman::
I am going to let you buy some

farmer #1:
oh yeah?

sman::
yeah

farmer #1:
: wow

sman::
Come with me and we’ll go to my club and talk to some
sman::
!SUCCESSFUL AGRI BIZZ NESS MEN
sman::
! Let me show you!
Come for a tour. You won’t be disappointed. Trust me.

:I’m a genius.
sman::
! Everyone’s invited! Come marvel at the miracle of our patented life forms!

FARMER transforms into Professor.
PROFESSOR:
Here you have a classically illustrated dramatic conflict.

Can our protagonist resist Santaman’s Harvest?
As an infectious enthusiasm for the future permeates the screen,
And asphalt and concrete block out the whispering of rocks and trees.
Are you paying attention?
DISCONNECT

References

Boal, Augusto (translated by Charles A. McBride and Maria-Odilia Leal McBride) (1985). The Theatre of the Oppressed. New York: Theatre Communication Group. (First published 1974 in Spanish as Teatro de Optimido.)

Boal, Augusto (translated by Adrian Jackson) (2002). Games for Actors and Non-Actors. London: Routledge.