Sitting in the audience for the performance of Ann Hirsch’s “Playground” at the New Museum last week, two things came to mind: one, that Hirsch had managed to trick a bunch of art school kids and fans of her often web-based art into coming to a very conventional theater production; and two, that the plot of her play felt a little conservative, despite Hirsch’s larger body of work that seeks to question representations of female minds, bodies, and sexualities on the internet.
I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect when I walked into the stark, white-walled basement auditorium of the New Museum to see “Playground,” which was commissioned by Rhizome, but it wasn’t a theater production. Hirsch has made art around YouTube personas, faked her way onto a dating-themed reality television show, done live performances in galleries as herself, and spent hours crying in a gallery, among other things. So, as the piece unfolded, I became really curious about why a largely digital artist chose to represent a fictionalized episode from digital life using the medium of theater.
My first guess is simply because people’s attention span is so much longer live than it is on the web. If Hirsch had chosen to tell the same story digitally, most people would probably have checked out after the first minute or two. Not to mention, she’s telling a story related to an old (by web standards) technology — early AOL chat rooms. Which means she needed to find a way to articulate the different speed and vernacular of that technology. It’s hard to purposely have things move slowly on the internet today, when the expectation in our post-dial-up world is that a website should load in far less than one second. And if Hirsch had tried to create this work using objects, or even people, in a typical art gallery setting, people would have merely grazed around it, read the wall label, looked at it all quizzically, and moved on, missing the body and emotionality.
By choosing theater as her medium, Hirsch was able to do what humans have been doing among themselves for tens of thousands of years: tell a complete story. And by putting everyone in the audience in the same room for awhile, where they could hear, see, and sense one another, the form provided a clear contrast to the relationship being portrayed in the work, which never exists in physical space, only in online chatrooms.
“Playground” begins with a 27-year-old male, jobe (played by Gene Gallerano), sitting at a computer — not the ubiquitous-in-New-York-City Macbook, but a bulky and awkward, not at all flat monitor, which would have, in its time (all of 20 years ago), been connected to a heavy and regularly overheated CPU. As the lights come up, a young woman, Anni (played by Annemarie Wolf), enters and sits down at her own large monitor. The two begin a typed exchange within a fictionalized and stripped-down variation on an early AOL chat room, projected onto the white wall above them. Over the course of the first act, their relationship grows from friendly and teasing banter about themselves and fellow chatters into an entirely web-based romantic relationship where they refer to one another as boyfriend and girlfriend. As the story continues, the man presses the young girl to masturbate and penetrate herself while he’s jerking himself off, going on to request that she use a pen to penetrate herself and then send it to him in the mail. She refuses to do this more than once, but carries on interacting with him via chat.
The work is a straightforward two-act drama, with the acts split by Anni’s departure for a stay at summer camp. And it’s a well-wrought piece of theater. The acting was good, and the directorial choice to build up from relatively static contact between the actors via keyboards and screens to actual conversation and then physical touch gave credence to the idea that genuine relationships can be forged through technology.
But the tenor of that relationship ends up being mostly creepy. Even though there are elements of the story that suggest a young woman exploring relationships and sexuality via the internet, the plot hinges on the character of jobe being an internet lurker who regularly seeks out young people to exploit sexually via chatrooms. And in the final moment of the play, jobe stands with Anni’s smaller body enwrapped in his as he fills one of his fists with her long hair, bringing it to his face as the lights dim — a kind of arch villain image. On the surface, it’s precisely the plot that the fearmongerers and entrapment experts working on the show To Catch a Predator rely on people knowing by heart. They want to convince us that the internet is filled primarily with creepy male pedophiles, and they particularly love to imply that those pedophiles are mostly gay — ’cause why not throw homophobia into the mix when you’re already stirring the pot?
I’m not suggesting that Hirsch is even remotely connected to the asshats at To Catch A Predator; what I am saying is that it was a little surprising to see a predictable tale focused on the internet as a dangerous place for young people come from an artist who specifically tackles issues of how the sexuality and sexualization of women is refracted through the internet and dominant media.
People are exploited via the internet, there’s no question. And I don’t mean to deny anyone’s experience of web-based exploitation, or any other form of it, for that matter. But as a work of art rather than a personal testimony — particularly by an artist who encourages others to subvert dominant narratives — “Playground” lacked subversion. I couldn’t help thinking about the other side of the story: all the ways that chat rooms opened up new and really important ways for young people to explore sexuality, friendship, and relationships, as well as their feelings and ideas.
Early chat rooms offered a new, relatively private space for people to forge identities that may not have been permitted in their physical homes, schools, or countries. That’s part of what many people, including digital artists, are talking about today in discussions of things like selfies and emotionality on webcams, among others.
For instance, more than once this year I’ve heard queer artists of different generations talk about AOL chat rooms as representing an important space for locating fellow queers and notions of a queer culture. Just last week I was talking to an artist in her 50s who spoke about how AOL chat rooms opened up a space for lesbian dating and friendship beyond bars or printed personal ads in the back of local newspapers. And earlier this year, at a reading on the Lower East Side, performer Ariel “Speedwagon” Federow spoke about giving free play to her sexuality, identity, and sense of humor in early AOL chat rooms. Deborah Levinson, who was involved in trying to open LGBT forums on AOL when the company remained resistant to their presence, has a personal narrative about the experience.
All of which is to say that, yes, absolutely, internet chat rooms can and have given rise to exploitation, but they also provide a relatively anonymous space away from family and friends and local norms to explore and expand one’s identity and social network. The queer history of AOL chat rooms shows that they weren’t just a space for creepiness; they also offered possibility and exploration, for many people, not just LGBTQ individuals. Hirsch’s “Playground” tells a believable story that likely reflects some of the experience of young people in early chat rooms — I heard someone beside me say as much when the play ended. But it’s not new, and it doesn’t offer much of a takeaway beyond reinforcing the idea that young people on the internet, particularly young women, are just a few clicks away from being taken advantage of. The internet, past and present, has also offered women of every age a chance to claim ownership of their ideas and bodies in important ways.
Perhaps the best summation of this alternate point of view comes from Hirsch herself: “While the internet has simultaneously intensified our existing problems, it has, as mentioned, provided us with the medium to fight back. My hope is that more women will take up a form they feel comfortable in, whether it be blogging, vlogging, producing, updating, posting, etc and express themselves in a manner they feel is demonstrative of their whole person.”
The performance of Ann Hirsch’s “Playground” took place at the New Museum (235 Bowery, Lower East Side) on Friday, October 4, at 7 pm.