an online symposium on cyberformance
Friday 12th October 2012

We all perform on the Internet. The social media profiles that we are contractually obliged to give our real names to are just as much performances as our World Of Warcraft or Minecraft avatars. Yet these impromptu performances of our socialised and fantasy selves lack the literary quality of drama. Not drama in the sense of a Usenet or Tumblr flamewar, but in the sense of theatre.

The 1993 New Yorker cartoon captioned “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” identifies two important features of the early public Internet. Firstly it’s a place, somewhere you can get onto. Secondly that place has limited bandwidth for establishing identity and communicating affect. This meant that the Cyberspace of the net became a site for identity play and imagined realities.

As the text-based virtual reality of MOOs gave way to the image-based Palace Chat and then three dimensional AlphaWorld the available bandwidth increased and with it the available ambiguity decreased. Describing a character or a scene or an action with a few words leaves the members of the audience much freer to exercise their own imaginations than seeing it in full motion animation with a high polygon count.

The visual, social and even economic order of virtual worlds and social media have become a more fixed and uncritical embodiment of mass media and the established social order. This has reduced their potential for alterity but it has made them useful representations both of shared reality and shared fantasy that can be used as a stage on which to perform critically, reintroducing the literay against the grain of their unreflective consumption of identity and spectacle.

Throughout this history, from the early 1990s to today, the Internet’s affordances have been used to produce dramatic performance in Cyberspace, “cyberformance”. The problem is we don’t remember this, at least not as clearly as we should. Individually, institutionally, and technologically we have lost our memories of artistically groundbreaking and important performances.

This problem is not unique to cyberformance. All digital art suffers from the decay of digital media and the creeping obsolescence of the hardware that it runs on. Internet art suffers from bitrot, software obsolescence, linkrot, the loss of web pages and sites elsewhere on the net that are connected to the work, and netrot, changes in the protocols used to distribute it.

Above and beyond those problems, cyberformance involves live perfomance. Unique events produced by historical communities at a particular moment using media that will rapidly become obsolete need to be recorded in order to be remembered or at least to be critically re-evaluated later. This creates a second layer of conservation and archiving problems.

Take the example (outside of Cyposium) of Judy Malloy’s “Brown House Kitchen”, a narrative environment created in the LambdaMOO text-based virtual reality. Despite being mentioned in surveys of virtual art in the 1990s, despite being produced with institutional support, and despite being stored on one of the longest-running textual virtual world servers the software objects that made up the work were recycled as part of the normal running of LambdaMOO and are now lost. Many other text-based virtual realities, some specifically designed for dramatic works, are not even online any more. And the protocols used to access them are old, with software to connect to them increasingly not installed by default on newer operating systems. Even those created after the Internet Archive started will not appear in it, as they are not web-based.

I mention LambdaMOO as by chance I was researching text based virtual worlds and performance in the months before Cyposium was announced. One work that was described in the literature but untraceable online was Stephen A. Schrum’s “NetSeduction”. Which Schrum presented and discussed at Cyposium. And the script of the original performance was made available through the Cyposium website. Without Cyposium, these resources would not have been made available.

These contrasting examples drive home just how badly needed Cyposium was. The Internet does enable us to digitise and experience more culture than ever before, but it also erases our memories of the culture that is native to it. And the often highly experimental nature of cyberformance makes it harder to record and remember than almost any other kind of technologically enabled art.

As well as addressing a specific need to recover the history of net performance, Cyposium is an exemplary model for a new kind of online event in the era of Massively Online Open College courses. It performs the function of a symposium or convention online, reducing barriers to access and increasing reach for institutions, speakers and audience members. The Waterwheel Tap software used for most of Cyposium allows side-channels of audience communication, which help to build a sense of place and community and allow the audience to ask (and answer) questions and share knowledge among themselves and with the speakers.

The panel discussions that Waterwheel enabled meant that old and new net performers could discuss each others work in the light of new developments or freshly reconsidered history. And we, the audience, wheoever we were and wherever we were, could watch and learn from this discussion and join in. I am often wary of the word “open”, but there was an intellectual and social generosity and inclusiveness to Cyposium that made it feel like a very open event.

A ripple of excitement went through the mailing lists I subscribe to when Cyposium was announced. Its organizers and line up promised something special, and the event itself didn’t disappoint. To be part of the audience, chatting in text alongside the live streaming video presentations, was to be part of both a welcoming ad hoc conversational community of interest and participating in a key moment in a larger historical conversation.

Cyposium went beyond recovering and presenting the history of online performance. It brought together net performers old and new in productive dialogue in front of an engaged audience and served as an example of a new kind of net native event. Now that the event itself has finished the Cyposium web site serves as an important record of an important aspect of online creativity.

This essay will appear in the forthcoming Cyposium book.

The text of this review is licenced under the Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0 Licence.