Talking Back to Movies With TrashTalk Theater

TrashTalk Theater at Space 4 Art in San Diego, CA (All photos by Joseph Molina unless noted)

“I get lonely sometimes,” the unsuspecting man stammered, as he followed the svelte, elegantly dressed woman he just met up the stairs to where he understood they would undress and…

“Everybody does,” Julia assured him.

She led him into an empty room where the only light shone through a shattered window.

“Jesus Christ!”

Cliver Barker’s “Hellraiser” (Image via

He spotted a man in the shadows — his face raw and bloody from lack of skin, revealing jutting cheekbones and bulging veins. The hungry vacant look in his eyes spelled trouble.

The horrified man careened forward as something bludgeoned the back of his head — a hammer wielded by Julia.

He knew his final moments were coming as the creature lunged forward and reached for his neck.

The words, “Legitimate Rape. – Fox News” appeared onscreen, amid a barrage of other comments.

“Hit me baby one more time – .”

“Why did she wait till his pants were off – .”

“Feminism 2, ugly butt 0 – Fluffy.”

“Shittiest date ever – .”

“Better to die than have sex – Romney.”

On the eve of Halloween, TrashTalk Theater presented its latest interactive experience to the audience at Space4Art in San Diego, California, screening the 1987 horror flick Hellraiser featuring live commentary from the audience.

View of TrashTalk’s “Hellraiser” screening

I sat in the audience in front of a laptop connected to the local network, and opened a web browser to access the TrashTalk Theater interface, which featured separate fields for “comment” and “name,” plus a checkbox to vote for a rewind. The film rewinds 15 seconds if enough people vote for one within a certain time frame.

My first comment materialized instantaneously on screen: “Hiiiii!!!! This is my first comment!!!!” It faded quickly before a cascade of others followed suit.

(For my name, I used an alias. If I told you what it was, then I’d have to kill you.)

The comments travel over a local network to the server hosting the TrashTalk Theater application, which posts them to the screen. The rapid dialogue firing on-screen comprised hundreds of invisible transactions.

The audience watching “Hellraiser” with TrashTalk

“What is really going on is that I am asking people to use the film as a medium or a catalyst to speak with each other,” said Jason Ponce, creator of TrashTalk Theater. “And in deliberately shifting focus like this — by drawing the experiential point of view outward in order to highlight the crowd and share in its experience, hopefully we create a new kind of cinematic experience.”

As an interactive artist, Ponce designs systems out of custom-built technology that engage people in participatory experiences.

The resulting interaction is the work itself — a mutual creative process unlike a finished painting that exists wholly on its own.

But instead of the one-to-one experience that often characterizes a confrontation with an artwork, Ponce engages many participants at a time, facilitating their interaction with one another — based on the idea that people construct meaning in collectives, not as isolated individuals.

“I had a particularly brilliant TrashTalk Theater screening of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis one time that left me with a much deeper understanding of the film. It was great! It really depends on the audience,” he noted.

He screens films at venues in various parts of the United States, the movies ranging from trashy to profound: from Showgirls, Flash Gordon, and Psycho Beach Party to Holy Mountain.

“I think it’s actually a place you can take risks with humor that you can’t do otherwise because you’re too self-conscious,” said viewer Barry Willis at the screening of Hellraiser. “Whereas here, if you put the comment out there and it falls flat, nobody cares because there’s another comment coming right behind it.”

Commenting on “Hellraiser” at TrashTalk Theater

Sarah Riccitelli said that one of her better comments came when the camera zoomed in on a bowl of writhing maggots.

“That’s a full meal in a 3rd world country,” she wrote.

“I know it was a little offensive, a little edgy. But I like to do that with my comments,” she said. “It’s like — if you can’t do it here, where are you gonna do it? You know? It’s an art space. It’s for free speech.”

“I sort of guessed that this is a more liberal crowd than you would find in other places,” John Stillwagen said. “I could play off that a little bit. And certainly the guy who was signing his name as ‘Fox News’ played off that quite a bit. So I think it’s like, you figure out your audience and you play to them.”

TrashTalk Theater’s logo (via TrashTalk)

Now that he can connect his system to the Internet, Ponce envisions one day screening live sports matches and political debates. Let the TrashTalk begin!

TrashTalk Theater evolved out of the principles behind interactive art, but because of how some people might experience the event, Ponce hesitates to call it “art” — acknowledging the de facto division between works classified as art as opposed to simply pop culture.

“A lot of people come to have fun. Or they get the opportunity to make a crowd laugh,” he said. “Or they just enjoy panning a film in public. For those people, a night with TrashTalk Theater is simply an absurd romp, and the idea of calling it art might seem way off the mark, or even pretentious. And, for me, all of this ambiguity is fine. In fact that is desirable!”

Who says art can’t be fun?

TrashTalk Theater hosts events around the country. Their event schedule is posted on their website.

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