#txtshow (on the internet)

[online]; Thursday 8th October, 2020

This is definitely not a simple case of watching theatre in your own home – these here are full-on, professional Zoom-ing rules. Put some sensible clothes on, no sitting around in pants just in case they can somehow see more than the webcam shows. It could happen. Better to be safe than sorry.

External keyboard and mouse plugged in, comfortable sitting position, not too close to the camera – never overshare on Zoom, we all know these rules now.

#txtshow (on the internet) really is like joining a professional Zoom call. You can’t just be yourself because you are undefined and uncertain to these strangers, so you have to make a huge, huge effort to come across as being nice, or even normal. “Do nothing” is not an option – be extra normal.

Log in, have a look around the gallery to see who else is already there, take a deep breath and make the decision: shall I turn my camera and microphone on? Shall I? 

The Moderator gives out some instructions, even on what to do if there’s a fire alarm. But the intro is brief and there are so many questions, just so many. 

But there’s no time for any of that, it’s all a bit work-like and then suddenly along comes txt (Brian Feldman). He puts his mug down at his table, he takes a seat, he starts fiddling with his mobile.

Who is this txt guy on the screen? Is he the host, is he just a presenter, a contributor? What transpires over the next 45 minutes is that he’s more like some kind of toy – a biological entity that we have the power to control through nothing more than chat messages. He is performance hardware that we can program, a theatrical bot who we may guide as we see fit.

It takes a while to get accustomed to what is actually happening on screen and whether you should actually get involved.

txt comes out with some bizarre opening lines, they make no real sense. Just random statements, some opinions, he’s not even asking questions, nor wanting any answers. He’s just spouting out some stuff.

But we’ve all been encouraged to send him a private message. So we do. 

#txtshow (on the internet) then becomes a kind of computer game, an RPG maybe, but certainly a very primitive one. It brings back memories of the utterly daft early 1980s artificial intelligence engines, the cassette-based programs on a microcomputer where you type something and it attempts to have a human conversation with you.

In this case though, it just reads out what you’ve typed, although with much added drama and lusty theatrical after-effects. But because everyone’s doing it, what soon starts to emerge is some sort of hive-mind-like outpouring of miscellaneous uncertainty.

It’s a theatrical synthesis, a collectivised effort to yield something that we might call a performance in the traditional sense.

Can this work though, can a group of strangers who’ve never met before create something artistic in this way, in real time? Or are we just logging on to play an online computer game, once we’re done we’ll all log off and get on with our lives?

It’s mostly all nonsense really, there are no real rules, no underlying scheme of governance to instill order but somehow there’s always the possibility that this could go somewhere. If only I could take charge of txt for a few minutes.

Things get amusing when messages cross. Are these really the things that other people are typing? Is he inserting any of his own lines? Why can’t I control this on-screen character? 

It starts tentatively, veers dangerously close towards a “this game is shit I’m playing something else” experience but then the chance for silliness takes over and that’s when something which we might define as a performance begins to organically grow.

The temptation to enter into dastardly mischief is strong. Just how rude can I get? What are all these strange people thinking, some of their lines just don’t make sense? 

txt reveals that he’s in Washington, just three miles from the British embassy he says. I’m not sure if I believe him, perhaps someone typed that in a message and he’s just reading that out.

Suddenly you glance over to the (one-way) chat history on the right-hand side of the screen which shows what you’ve been furiously typing to him. It’s garbled nonsense, it looks like a desperate attempt to get someone to interact with you by text message. A flurry of messages sent out, yet they never respond.

It could also be lines of computer code – they are, after all, controlling the performance sprite on screen.

txt begins feel like a toy who is to be played with as you see fit. Whilst he’s not my creation, I have now assumed control over him, I’ve learnt what he can do and can now begin to exploit his recital and dramatisation skills.

But the others are playing with him as well. I want this toy to myself, just to see what it can do, to see what fun can be had. But then it happens:

Game Over.

#txtshow (on the internet) is such an intriguing and innovative concept, it’s far more than the simple, one-way online broadcast performances that have substituted themselves in place of real-world delivery in traditional theatres.

The interaction is not all like any other form of interactive theatre performance. This is an interaction between the audience members – via the proxy of a malleable acting implement that we can effectively control anonymously, given that no one can see who typed what, other than txt himself.

It’s controlling, it’s coercive. You’re not allowed to be controlling and coercive in real life, you can vent that kind of thing as much as you like in computer games because it’s not real. Yet here there is a real man and I’m in control of his theatrical performance.

I have the power to send this in any direction I want, it’s a tantalising prospect. I can’t run out of ideas now that I know what I’m doing, this is me controlling a human being. But it turns out that I’m lacking in the skills and abilities to make full use of that. And why did I feel the need to exploit my power, isn’t that bad?

How would this have gone if there’d been different people in the meeting? Or more people in the meeting, or even less. This particular monologue and performance will never, ever happen again. Ever.

All of it leads to a worrying prospect: this might just be what I basically do in work-based Zoom meetings: offer not much at all; hope to invoke some kind of reaction; strive desperately to provide some useful input that is appreciated by others. And all for no other reason than I’m there, so I might as well try to contribute something.

#txtshow (on the internet) is easily the best Zoom call I’ve dialled into during 2020. Something seems to have been achieved, something has definitely been felt.

http://wpadc.org/artist/brianfeldman


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