I left Eyebeam Technology and Art Center this past Saturday with a migraine that could kill a horse. A huge horse. I had just left the art space with Kathleen Flood, a producer at The Creators Project, who invited me to tag along in a performance piece she was appearing in called The Alices (Walking) by Claudia Hart. The event was not described well to me in advance—an "augmented reality fashion show," or whatever that could mean (though I imagined it like this)—and probably for the better. It was arguably one of the closest moments I've had to feeling like I was in a Charlie Kaufman movie. Meta on meta on meta.
I was short on time and didn't have a chance to read the press release, so I borrowed a camera and headed over, hoping there would be free drinks. They did offer tasty cocktails, adorned with edible flowers, but there weren't enough in the world to get rid of my headache.
I'm still having trouble describing what happened in Hart's performance piece. It wasn't really a fashion show, but fashion was certainly a focus. The artist describes it as "a sculptural opera in the guise of an experimental fashion show," so I'll just go with that. The best way to explain it was the brief and odd phenomena that occurs when you take a photo of someone else taking a photo, except heightened to exponentional levels.
I'll try and break it down: The Alices (Walking) was a performance where five artists wore "website dresses," vibrant outfits crafted by Hart and adorned with visual content that was read via a custom app using tablets held by participa. The extended imagery that appeared on the tablets was then projected on to a giant screen behind the audience. While the dresses were being examined and moderated by the tech, the performers were shouting intentionally-plagiarized lines from Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures In Wonderland as a churning score by composer Edmund Campion was played live (Campion also designed the custom animation software). As each "Alice" appeared on the runway, his or her dress was plugged into the system, and a new code tree was activated, and thus a new series of animated patterns.
So think of it this way, I was taking photos of people taking videos of augmented reality-enhanced dresses. Those videos were then projected onto a large screen, which I also took photos of. My eyes kept darting back and forth from camera lens, to stage, to screen, making my corneas feel as if they were about to melt into a pile of goop.
Watching The Alices (Walking) was like watching the process of technological gazing concentrated into a 30-minute performance. Every single audience member was looking through a lens of some sort. Binoculars were handed out at the beginning of the show, and we were all encouraged to take photos. The all-present TV Eye (well, Smartphone Eye) and juxtaposition of reality and virtual reality was also layered against multiple interpretations of social media. The event itself was a public, social affair, and everyone was simultaneously drinking and chatting and also sharing the performance online.
It was also a mind-melt because the performance was a re-make of two earlier Alices pieces. Last year, Hart organized a similar theatre piece in Chicago that included a different augmented-reality artwork by the artist. And 25 years earlier, pre-digital, Hart worked on another piece involving Alices. So not only was she intentionally recycling art by Lewis Carroll, but she was also re-cycling work from her own career. There were so many levels of meta that my head is still spinning.
My vision looked like this by the time it all ended:
I talked to Claudia Hart after the show, and she explained some of her motivations and reasoning behind the performance. "I am one of those who wake up in the middle of the night to check my iPhone and feel anxious if I'm not wired," she told me. Hart studied media theory at NYU, and cited the famous cover of Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle as an inspiration for The Alices (Walking). She noted that her other inspiration was the idea of augmented-reality itself—"the fact that there is a world that you can see, but only through your phone, which is to me, like to most [tech] addicts, a prosthetic extension of one's own body... The idea of the phone as a cyborg eye, which it is."
When I asked her if she actually wanted the audience to watch the piece through their phones, Hart explained that "I wanted the piece to be a visualization of the fetishistic, scopophiliac nature of our media-obsessed society. So I wanted it to be perverse and sort of crazy, like Carroll’s Alice obviously also is (he was a pedophile after all). Alices (Walking) is about addictive, compulsive, obsessional behavior and our fixation with looking through peep-holes. It's really about the eroticism of peeping and how smartphone-peeping addiction is erotic, which is why it works."
I agreed with her thoughts that The Alices was a characaterization of the idea (popularized by Marshall McLuhan) that technology provides an extension of our bodies and senses, but erotic felt like the wrong word.
To me, I think our smartphone-enabled peeping is about modifying reality as an act of control, rather than lust or eroticism. Filtering and moderating our surrounding life is how we try to attain a semblance of power or command in a world where there is more uncontrollable stimuli than ever before. It's the same reason people wear headphones at work even if they aren't listening to music—the act provides private space and simultaneously signals to others that your world is not to be interrupted.
Alices was about control and how we moderate our lives, but also how our technological filtering can lead to cacophony, insanity, and a world that's less footed in reality than anything Carroll ever created.
Then again, when I asked Hart what she thought Carroll would say about her performance piece she replied matter-of-factly: "I think he would get it, and identify with it, including the fact that all of my Alices are weird, that they are in fact, anti-Alices, and in being perfectly inverted Alices are the only possibility for an Alice of the 21st century. I think he would know that. And be happy about it."
Images by the author and from Claudia Hart's Tumblr
Special thanks to Eyebeam, Claudia Hart, and her lovely team for including The Creators Project in the performance.
See more about this art piece at Eyebeam's site