Standing in the lobby of Vienna's experimental theater Schauspielhaus Wien with 30 or so well-mannered Austrians, there's a nervous hush as we huddle around a rusty metal door, unsure of what to expect on the other side. A deafening techno track begins roaring from behind it, breaking the silence as an attendant unlocks the door, gesturing the crowd down a darkened staircase. One by one, the guests pass through, having received no instructions other than that they can move about freely and speak to whomever they encounter in the underground world they are about to enter.
Once downstairs, we find ourselves in a fully-stocked pantry with dusty canned goods and flickering overhead lights. There are several doors leading in different directions, and the group splinters off through them uncertainly into the subterranean universe. To the left is what appears to be a teenage girl's bedroom, with dirty plush toys and vampire comic books strewn across the bed, and a 2003 Destiny's Child world tour poster on the wall. Take the door to the right and you'll end up in what looks like the dark room of a seedy gay sex club, a cramped concrete cell featuring a stained mattress with a pair of handcuffs lying across it. The ceilings are low and claustrophobic throughout the space, the lighting dingy, and everything gives the impression of an endlessly recurring nightmare, as rooms lead into other rooms, hallways, and dead ends, each circling back into one another without any sense of logic. As I wander alone through one of the dim passageways, I'm suddenly cornered by two teenagers who weren't with the original group. Speaking Arabic, they ask "Andak massari?" as they reach into my pockets, fishing out the change before running in the opposite direction. The money was never returned.
As the playbill states, Cellar Door is a fully "walkable cosmos on the interface between performance and virtual reality" imagined by directors Thomas Bo Nilsson, Julian Wolfe Eicke, and Jens Lassak as a work in three parts. The installation itself, which runs non-stop for 504 hours, consists of a sprawling, labyrinthine fifty-room set constructed in the basement of the theater and inhabited by forty actors, some of whom remain on set and in character for the entire 21-day duration the project is on view. The multimedia performance is open to the public twice per day in four-hour slots until May 5, with the rest of the performance unfolding online at lexlydia.net, a dark web-inspired forum and live streaming video chat room created specifically for the piece. The set is outfitted with several 90s desktop computers, and the characters, who each have their own avatar on the platform, log in occasionally to gossip about each other.
The site, which is designed to look like a web 1.0 online gaming community, also allows users anywhere in the world to chat directly with the characters, some of whom are fitted with wearable video gear and take commands from the users in the chatroom as if they were characters in an RPG. The third component of Cellar Door comes in the form of a 12-minute short film directed by video artist Matt Lambert, which hints at the genesis story of how the underground world came to be. Together, the three parts congeal into a 21st century gesamtkunstwerk that merges IRL with URL, encouraging visitors to the set to continue their experience in the online chat room, and likewise luring the forum users to the physical location in Vienna. Call it a European, dystopian version of Charlie Kaufman's hyperrealist freakout Synecdoche, New York as if directed by Anonymous and the creators of Diablo.
"There is no task or secret for the audience to discover," says Tobias Schuster, the theater's dramaturge, who commissioned the piece in early 2015. "It's more important to simply experience this underground society which has completely fallen into itself, and how communication [among the inhabitants] regulates their lives and how they deal with each other." Communication in the Cellar Door universe quickly turns dark. On set, as if under the protective cover of online anonymity, the characters constantly hurl racist, sexist, and homophobic insults at each other. Moving about aimlessly in the space, they seem to make little distinction between their online and offline selves, referring to each other by their usernames in the forum—BOY11GENERATION12 is a "disgusting faggot," GIRL4GENERATION20 is a "fat whore." On lexlydia.net, the conversations unfold nearly identically to those in the cellar.
"We were interested in exploring the anonymity which existed in the early days of the internet," co-director Thomas Bo Nilsson explains to me while still dressed as Gigi, the crimp-haired transgender computer addict he's playing in the piece. "Your choice of identity was much freer, there were no laws or rules about what you could or couldn't say. But anonymity brings out the worst sides of people. I don't know why, but it's a fact we wanted to explore."
Sexual aggression and sadism are rampant on set as well. On entering one room which looked like a makeshift kitchen in a college dorm, I meet a character who identifies himself as Sathanus. Dressed in a baby blue soccer jersey and mesh shorts, he finishes tying up two extras wearing fetish gear of sorts, lying prostrate on the floor. After flicking coffee grounds at them and pouring Ouzo over their heads, he runs out of ideas and asks me if I think he should pour some of the scalding hot coffee over them. I say I'd rather see them make out, which he then forces them to do. When I return to the same room later in the night, the three are gone, likely causing havoc in some other part of the set, perhaps to broadcast their depraved games on one of the webcams set up for online viewers. My interpretation of the "plot," I realize, will be completely different from the other visitors'.
I continued through the set, occasionally joining some of the others who had entered the cellar with me. They were entangled in their own interactions with the characters, some more open to the experience than others. Witnessing one actor start an impromptu deep throat competition with a dildo, one of the visitors left the room, clearly uncomfortable. The rest stayed. "I think an interactive piece like Cellar Door points out that society and the events which unfold are still very much in our control. It's not dictated by some higher power," says Schuster.
In other words, while the project has turned the dark underbelly of social interaction on the web into a physical manifestation, Cellar Door reminds us we still have the agency to choose how we behave both online and off. If anything, this explorable microcosm of internet culture exemplifies that some people can't stomach (or deep throat) the type of taboo or depraved culture found on digital platforms when confronted with it outside a screen. "Doing a piece about the sadism of people doesn't need to be pessimistic," the dramaturge adds. "[Cellar Door] is a reflection of our dark side, reminding people of their possibilities and a chance to reflect on their morals."
Later in the evening, after striking up a conversation with one of the characters, I find myself lying on one of the mattresses with him, flirting. Another actor suddenly bursts into the room, grabbing me by the arm and pushing me out the theater. It's 1:00 AM and the IRL happening is over for the night, though Cellar Door's online component is likely still in motion. As I walk back to my hotel, I try to make sense of what I'd just seen, asking myself if the flirting was real, or part of the performance. I ended up going back the next night to find out, but the anonymous character was nowhere to be found.
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