If you’re a certain age – and I am – then the internet isn’t something you were born into: it appeared in your life, uncanny and unassailable as a UFO, bringing with it knowledge that might as well have been extraterrestrial, it was so far-reaching. I was a student at the time, so my first few encounters with it were study-based unremarkable; but then came the epiphany: I could use it to find out more about art. Specifically, music. Specifically, American indie bands. I could, for instance, look up what a lovely guitarist called Jeffrey Mueller was up to. And, on discovering that his new band were on tour in the US, I could find out how much it would cost to fly to New York. I could buy a ticket to the show in Manhattan. Manhattan! A place I’d only seen on cinema screens. I could travel further than I’d ever travelled, on my own, on impulse, trusting in nothing more than the words on the computer screen and human kindness.
In the 20 years since that preposterous adventure, I’ve ignored the internet, failed to appreciate it, grown suspicious of it, frightened even; I’ve avoided comment boxes and violent porn and videos of beheadings and twitter trolls; I’ve lost work to it and shaped a new way of working on it; wasted time and gained knowledge. My relationship with it is as equivocal as any long-term, full-time relationship: love for it in constant tension with a sense of compromise, frustration, disappointment and fury. For all its complications, central to that relationship is the same truth that made that student epiphany so electric. The internet tells me about art, and it tells me about people. It opens doors that lead to human connection.
Among the many people the internet led me to is Mary Paterson: a scintillating writer and thinker whose collaboration on Open Dialogues questioned everything about how live art and performance are written about, documented and critiqued, and cleared the path for much of the work I do now. While Open Dialogues slipped into hiatus, Mary contacted me about a new collaboration, which we called Something Other. You can’t write about performance, scholar Peggy Phelan asserted, without it becoming something other than performance. We thought we’d find out more about what that something other might be.
Over the course of two years, Something Other has become a website and a blog, a series of commissions – which include essays, video poetry, notes towards a future performance, and a picaresque political journey around the web – and our own performance night: Reading the Internet. In a sense, Reading the Internet is exactly that: people read out texts they’ve encountered on the internet. It exists because of a simple question: if the writing that happens in relation to performance – be that a review, a blog, a prose-poem written in response to live art – is itself performative, what happens when that writing is used as the text for a live performance? Its existence has complicated that question in ways we never anticipated.
For one thing, we quickly realised that the night would be pretty dull if we asked people to confine themselves to a) reading and b) writing about other performances. The internet bit we were committed to, but we invited people to think as widely as possible about their relationship to the internet as readers, and as human beings. We wanted to think about how reading might be embodied, performed as a physical act: what does skim-reading look or sound like? How does it feel to sit down on the toilet and read a few tweets, but still be there 25 minutes later because a link has led you to a blog and your attention has been gripped? How is it possible to convey, live, the strange elation of reading three texts almost simultaneously, moving between tabs? Who are the selves encountered on Facebook, and how are they affected by being filtered through another self, voice, stance?
We’ve staged two Reading the Internet nights now, and each time have been thrilled by the ways in which texts and internet materials are transformed by their live presentation. On 5 July 2015, the same day Greece voted in their EU bailout referendum, playwright/academic/critic Dan Rebellato published a fiery blog inspired both by that event, the wider political context of austerity, and a production of the Oresteia at the Almeida. At our first Reading the Internet, later that month, student/theatre-maker/writer Andre Neely read out that blog, absolutely word-for-word, and in doing so made it even more powerfully affective. His Portuguese accent gave it an unexpected southern-European cadence; each time he stumbled over a word or phrase he conveyed human vulnerability; and the optimism of the piece – Dan was hoping for a vote against austerity – became desperately sad with the knowledge of the negative vote heavy in the room. By giving that writing a live voice, Neely gave it new layers of feeling and complexity.
Very little that happens at Reading the Internet is as straightforward as that particular performance. Many of the texts are found on the internet, but some are written specifically for the night itself; those that pre-exist are often “treated” by the reader: heavily edited, woven into a collage, read with accompanying commentary, sung; when a performer can’t attend the night in person they record themselves reading, or dancing, and is that film another text, or a work of art? The variety makes it difficult to know how to describe what the night is: Mary and I worry that any phrase we use to pin it down will squash it or make it sound niche. Although there is poetry in the texts, it’s not exactly a poetry reading; all the words are spoken, but its rhythms are different to those of spoken-word nights. I wonder if we could get away with describing it as stand-up comedy – there isn’t much in the way of one-liners or gags, but there is a great deal of laughter to be had.
The humour is in the grain of humanity: even for people of a certain age who didn’t grow up with the internet, digital space isn’t something different from physical space; there isn’t separation between virtual reality and daily life, but interrelation. By reading the internet, we are reading human existence. The times I love the internet the most are when it gives me access to voices, and minds, that I wouldn’t otherwise encounter – not even in the theatre. People with experiences wholly unlike my own, who teach me more about compassion, generosity and hope. Much that is on the internet makes it hard to trust in the words on the computer screen, harder still to believe in human kindness; but there is also much that testifies to the most positive aspects of humanity, and Reading the Internet exists on the faultline between the two – exorcising the worst, and celebrating the best.
Reading the Internet is at CPT on Friday 18 March, 2016, at 9pm. FIND OUT MORE.