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UpStage 101010 – A New Zealand Based Festival of Performance Art

Ellen Pearlman

On October 10th, 2010, the Upstage Festival of Performance Art (101010) curated by Helen Varley Jamieson, Vicki Smith, and Dan Untitled ran for approximately twenty hours, the fourth such iteration of themed dates (last year ran on 090909.) 101010 showcased thirteen new cyber performances from Canada, USA, UK, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Austria, Serbia, Australia, and New Zealand, most lasting for twenty minutes. UpStage was host to ten real world viewing nodes in Calgary, New York, Nantes, Eindhoven, Oslo, Ljubljana, Pancevo, Vietnam, Auckland, and Wellington. Individuals could also tune in from the comforts of their own homes.

UpStage’s audience derives from anywhere one is capable of accessing a web page, and participation does not require the installation of any new software except the ubiquitous Flash Player plug-in. The application sits on a central server, is free and open source, and programmers can add new code and share improvements and new features. Written in Python, UpStage works with third-party applications. It provides a set of tools for logged in players to work with a variety of media in real time; graphics (still images and animations), video (live web cam feeds or prerecorded video), audio (text2speech synthesized speech or prerecorded audio), text and illustrations that are collaboratively manipulated to create an improvised or rehearsed event.

Performers, euphemistically referred to as “players”, show up in the “stage” or screen area as avatars with access to a variety of pre-created backgrounds and props. When the avatars speak their words appear on-screen as a cartoon-like bubble, and their speech is simultaneously rendered in the odd robotic text2speech function. The thirteen performances were grouped into four themed categories. Temporal explored sound and movement across time and networks. Trajectory examined the path of a moving object through space, and the arc where that object intersected with the story. Tendrils wove subtle thoughts and concepts, and Transgress went beyond limits to question, challenge, and provoke.

MIT Professor Sherry Turkel in her 1995 groundbreaking book Life On The Screen first codified the anonymous audience interaction. UpStage’s appeal is its live-time interactivity that emulates the anonymity of sites like Second Life, but also employs scripted dramas that let the audience (either all of the time, or at selected moments) jump into the story. It raises the question of the difference between “stage” acting in a traditional theater, and acting in front of a virtual audience, an issue bridged by maintaining traditional chat function.

Before a scheduled performance begins, one can congregate in a virtual foyer and facilitators use a megaphone to speak in synthesized robotic text2speech voices. A second screen tab hosts the site of the virtual performance area. Depending on whom Upstage is trying to connect with, the dialogue and effects can flow swiftly, or be disrupted.

I was able to view four performances over the span of two hours. “Plaice or Sole” by Francesco Buonaiuto, Mario Ferrigno, and Simona Cipollaro (Naples) contained graphic sexual content that was presented in a purposely immature style. At first it was annoying and boring, but afterwards I was informed that was the point – to emulate and call attention to the inane comments and dialog that occur in many on-line cybersex chat rooms. A crash during the site’s interaction was a deliberate simulation of a technical failure. As one person put it, “it forced you to become engaged in the text shift.”

Active Layers, is a virtual collective includes Cherry Truluck (UK), Liz Bryce (NZ), James Cunningham and Suzon Fuks (Australia). They combine theatre, dance, video and visual arts both digitally and conceptually to redefine the meaning of location and site. Their animation piece “Aquifer Fountain” focused on drought, water, flooding, and devastation, with mothers dreaming of lost babies. During the performance the actors participated from London, Kawerau and Milwaukee.

“Make Shift” is a work in progress by Paula Crutchlow (UK) and Helen Varley Jamieson (NZ/Germany). They used the Upstage audio-visual conferencing tools in two deliberate domestic spaces to link their cyberformances, thus creating a third discursive space. The discussions focused on the political aspects of domesticity such as “nesting, feeding and mobility,” and how this relates to the experience of globalization.

“MASS-MESS ” by Katarina DJ. Urosevic & Jelena Lalic (Serbia) ran both virtually and at the physical node at Galerija Elektrika in Pancevo. It was a study of structures, mass media and independence in the context of a hierarchy of information without a center playing out like a post-Soviet Politburo manifesto. “MASS-MESS” made it onto Serbian TV, as evinced by a subsequent newscast posted onto YouTube.