Defying the Realm of Digital Staring by Astrid Peterle
On Charlotta Ruth’s “Public Eremite”
In the theatre before the show even begins, when the light slowly turns darker, we are all asked to switch out our telephones. When did this all begin? Do you still remember the times when you did not have to fear that your mobile phone would suddenly ring or vibrate during act 1?
Once upon a time we were all off line because there was no cyber net. In Charlotta Ruth’s performance “Public Eremite” her performer alter ego states that all “cyber asocials”, people not using or intentionally distancing themselves from using the Internet and social media, need help or else they will not survive. Nowadays to be off line, to be a “cyber asocial” is considered to be the exception because we live in a world of billions of Internet users and social media aficionados.
Ruth has created a subtle performance that stimulates to reflect on the uncanniness of the Internet's dominance over our lives. She uses a performative approach that may be defined as subversive affirmation and integrates elements of overidentification with the matter that she is actually putting up for a critical involvement.
During her performance Ruth shifts between two kinds of characters. One of them is resembling some sort of creepy representative preaching the incredible goodness the Internet is bringing without ever naming anything obvious. With her grey suit she is the ultimate bureaucrat of the cyber space. Her bright but slightly disturbing smile successfully creeps in. The other character is straight out of a fairy-tale, telling us a story about a forest and the deep woods that create a comforting area far away from any social media where an eremite can still be what he/she is supposed to be. Beginning with the phrase “once upon a time” it is instantly evident that we exit the realm of reality, yet in the shrewd concatenation of the performer’s two different character’s monologues, the layers and borders between the different realms completely collapse into each other.
The architectural set up of the performance promotes a subtle relationship between the audience and the performer. The audience sits elevated like in an anatomical theatre, looking down into a lower space, separated from the performer with barriers like in a sports stadium. The whole stage is white and grey, with a high desk and a big table. The overall dominating colour defines it as a kind of grey box that acts as a projection surface for any digital desires. The set up evokes a hierarchy between audience and performer: The audience is the voyeur looking down onto the performer like onto a tiger in the rink. Yet Ruth manages to turn this hierarchy around, dominating us with the tasks she is giving us and her speeches that remind us of a sales representative or devoted sect catcher when she preaches that “not joining creates a gap between us” and that all “cyber asocials” need to be saved or else they are doomed. In certain moments it feels like she is rather observing us than vice versa, as it is usually the case in a conventional theatre situation.
In the first half of the performance the audience is asked to fill out a questionnaire that is elaborately created by hand with a black pencil and handed to the audience members in a paper folder. The first task consists of writing down single words defining life and communication for us. Then neighbours couple up and have to draw each other’s portrait without looking at the paper or stopping the pencil from moving. People enjoy this analogue task. Then two questions need to be filled out: “What do you try to avoid online?” and “What is difficult to avoid online?” The last task is multiple-choice where you can choose what kind of character in regard to using the Internet you are: eremite, mole, bird-watcher, gardener, social smoker, spider, share-bitch. While collecting the questionnaires the performer asks some audience members questions like “What is the middle name of your brother?” and, “What was your address when you were 12 years old?” They seem like the security questions you have to type in when you create an online password.
Without invoking an opposition between digital and analogue, it seems that the audience enjoys this analogue intermezzo, where one can draw and write with a pencil instead of typing and swiping. It also reminds us that the theatrical performance per se is an analogue experience, even though in the last couple of years digital screens are more and more integrated into theatre and performance art to challenge the perception of the audience. Thus nowadays it is nearly an exception to experience a performance without digital elements. But Ruth and composer and sound designer Johannes Burström trick us and turn the analogue/digital binarity upside down – the bird sounds relating to the fairy-tale parts are completely fake and digitally created.
The soundscape in “Public Eremite” plays an important role in creating an uncanny atmosphere and unstableness that sneaks into the audience without making it obvious where it comes from. This is created through the means of placing sound sources in different positions of the space. The electronic sound is controlled in real time by the composer and the performer, who trigger each other’s improvisation. The fake bird sounds seem more real than reality, if such a thing is even possible, and sometimes enter the space from an invisible space off-stage.
The choreographed movement in the performance creates some kind of swishing between the different layers, interconnecting the analogue and the digital. Sometimes the performer drops to the floor as if a sudden overload of the system occurs. Other times the movement appears meditative, the performer is stopping short while softly swaying. A backpack and a wrapped snack send our thoughts to the forest, a deo roll-on and contact lenses are reminiscences of the hectic multitasking of our digital communication.
We are all prone to digital staring, loosing ourselves in screens and virtual folder libraries that store our work life as well as our holiday photos. Dreaming us away into a forest might not be the solution but it might help to realize that life is no less happening analogically than virtually and that we were once capable of arranging to meet at the theatre without e-mailing, posting or twittering.
Ruth is, as I am, part of a generation that in my opinion possesses a special ability to take a critical stance towards the overwhelming dominance of the Internet and social media. I do not intend to get nostalgic here or glorify an analogue past. But the fact that we were already adults when the Internet boom kicked in and thus grew up without it, yet were still young enough to easily adapt to the new media, does create the strength of a dual socialisation that can be used for critical analysis. The generation younger than us is completely emerged and cannot imagine a life without Facebook and e-mails. The generations older than us often develop an obsession to always keep up with every new cyber trend, any new device and gadget in order not to loose connection with contemporary ways of communication. Not everything was good before the Internet existed nor is everything better now that we live in the digital age.
Ruth has proven once again that contemporary choreography and performance art are a potential space of critically reflecting dominant phenomena. Considering that it might be difficult to break the patterns of our daily normative behaviour but not impossible, the performer’s phrase “You need to know the new rules or else you are on a road to irrelevance” can be interpreted subversively: shut down your social media identities and enjoy the analogue.
Copyright © charlotta ruth