I entered a room with chairs grouped together like vector fields. Clustered in triangles and rows, each group faced a different direction. Where to sit? The largest open space—presumably for performing—lay in front of a desk with two computers. Projected onto the opposite wall, a giant Google “g” floated next to a box that read, “BROWSE / SUBMIT / login: perform / logout.”
This was Ursula Endlicher’s dance installation at Center for Performance Research in early October. The last in her series, Website Impersonations: The Ten Most Visited, “#2 – www.google.com” featured five performers interacting with a score derived from Google’s html code. Before it began, Endlicher addressed us and described what would happen. It was like having someone explain a game I’d never played. One doesn’t learn from hearing the rules; in order to understand the logic, rhythms, and actions of “google.com,” it had to be experienced.
The sides of the room became the primary sites of action. On one end, an html tag sourced from Google’s live web code, like “<a>” or “<body>”, was broadcast into the room, visually and aurally. The tag text was projected onto the wall in layers streaming upward, like a screensaver. A few clipped sounds punctuated the sustained hum of Aaaaa’s and other noises inspired by the tags (apparently Google’s code, at least on October 3, had lots of <a>’s). These tags prompted a solo dancer’s movements. Endlicher, sitting at one of the computers, typed in a description of these movements (which appeared on the back wall for all to see). Audience members could also come to the computer station to offer their interpretations of the solo dancer. Meanwhile, movement descriptions from previous performances appeared on the other side of the room, read by a robotic voice, and these text snippets provoked a dancer duo to respond with improvised movement.
Despite the complexity of its structure, “google.com” proved accessible and stimulating. Viewers were not only forced to let go of the need to see everything, but also of the desire to understand exactly what is going on. I came to understand the piece intuitively, taking pleasure in discovering how the different elements of the installation were related and communicating with each other. (Though I never fully grasped what connection Laura Meyers and Robert Appelton, in chairs, had to the text. Their slow-motion facial and finger contortions remained for me a kind of lava lamp in the corner, enjoyable but contained in its own context.)
Being in that space was unlike anything I had experienced (very exciting!), but it was also intensely familiar. It was our text-messaging, IM-ing, website-surfing reality writ large. An input triggered a response, or a series of simultaneous responses occurring in different times and places. Overlapping streams of consciousness created a rich and dynamic environment. “google.com” personified and expanded the very essence of the way we trade information in the internet age. The immediacy of change was overpowering. Many actions and systems occurred at once, morsels of information constantly streaming through different channels: video projection, sound, dancers’ movements.
The breadth of those elements—particularly dance—was delightful. Dancers Yuki Kawahisa, Melissa Burke, and Irem Calikusu awed me with their range, responding to choreographic commands and improvisational prompts with remarkable sensitivity and physical intelligence. Descriptions of the solo dancer (provided by multiple authors) ranged from “soft spirals, almost / indonesian dance like, / spiral in and out, finials” to “crocodile, what? / oh no.”
It wasn’t long in this environment that I had the feeling I was living in the internet. As if changing the channel or jumping to a different website, I could change my seat and focus, or go contribute to the performance (echoes of wikipedia) by inputting text. Despite the abundance of information, fixed meaning was elusive. “google.com” created endless, raw, looping, and overlapping cycles of imitation, translation, and creation. Misinterpretation was rampant, but was always swept away by a new reality, a new opportunity. For example, as I sat down to describe Irem Calikusu’s movement as “understanding vastness,” (at the time, she was spreading her arms slowly out and up, looking starry-eyed toward the sky), she began to change her posture entirely, bringing body and gaze to the floor. Probably, “understanding vastness” had nothing to do with her movement intention, but faced with this new situation, I concluded my text with “can it be understood? comes back to ground.”
On the opposite side of the room, a reverse process was taking place. Text descriptions from previous performances of “Website Impersonations” cued improvisations for two dancers. My personal favorite, “there are 32,000 McDonalds on / the earth—how many in the / univerese?” inspired some hilarious mimed burger-eating, with both dancers squatting low like sumo wrestlers. The robot voice delivering the lines was an impassive reminder of the frequent errors involved in instant, technologically-aided communication; it didn’t know how to pronounce McDonald’s, and the misspelled “univerese” was said phonetically.
Relevant as these errors are to the “information age,” their presence is a fundamental part of how we learn, interact, and communicate. “google.com”, which Endlicher described as “a spatial enactment of our shared knowledge,” invited its audience to experience the systems which form our (cyber-)reality in a blissfully surreal context.
ContributorMary Love Hodges