Our good friend Shakespeare asserted that "All the world's a stage", but now in the age of the technological reproducibility of art and everyday life, what about the virtual world?
This is exactly the domain of The Builder's Association. Founded in 1994 with the aim of using "the richness of new and old tools to extend the boundaries of theatre", The Builder's Association creates multimedia and interdisciplinary theatre performances that blend raw theatre with video, sound, text-based art and architecture to explore the unique position of the Western human in the 21st century. Their goal is to create a picture of the post-millenium world - both physical and virtual - on stage, using the technologies that define the age.
As part of Luminato 2009, The Builder's Association created Continuous City, a multimedia theatre performance at the Isabel Bader Theatre. As soon as I saw the words multimedia and theatre together in the Luminato events listing, I knew that this would be a show for me. Exploring the physical urbanity of the world through the digital plane of the virtual, ON STAGE? Yeah, I know. Even before I attended the actual performance, I visited the interactive website which augments the show, xubu.cc, only to find a bizarre mock social networking site on which I could record and contribute video, and interact with videos already recorded. To be honest, I was a tad perplexed - social networking and theatre? This confusion really whet my appetite for whatever The Builder's Association had dreamed up - leading me to slink over to the Isabel Bader Theatre to see what all this social networking jazz was all about.
As I entered the theatre, the stage was minimal and dark - two men sat at computers chatting with headsets and a young girl sat upstage playing games on her computer - familiar images for my generation. As the play began I quickly felt the sense of fragmention and disjunction that the mixing of theatre with video and new tech created - lending a brevity to the exploration of the postmodern human's techno-social augmentation. The story followed four different characters - J.V., an ambitious young entrepreneur who is starting up xubu.cc, a social networking site that claims to keep humans worldwide connected; Mike DeVries (only present in video shot around the world and interacted with on stage by the present actors) an anthropologist traveling the world on xubu's buck to explore how humans really stay connected; Sam, Mike's young daughter who, for long periods of time, can only interact with her father through video technology; and Deb, Sam's nanny who keeps a blog about her wanderings around Toronto. All four characters interact through technology, J.V. uses it as an extension of his romantic and professional life, Mike, to stay connected with his daughter, Sam, for all - or most - forms of communication and entertainment, and Deb, as an outlet for an over stressed woman. The production explores the various uses of technology - not criticizing its influence, but rather, covering the spectrum of technological social-augmentation through real and relevant everyday use. The story would jump back and forwards with the flashing, clapping, opening and closing of various screens mounted all over the stage, creating a movement that very closely resembled the jumping from page to page in the virtual world, where no one is more than a click away.
At times the play became painfully impersonal, which actually served to explore the downside of technological connectivity. J.V.'s romantic exploits were cold and loveless, lacking the personal warmth of real palpable presence and commnication, and though the altruism of the audience was piqued by the sweet and heartfelt father and daughter conversations, there was always the sadness of separation underlined through connecting through tech - though technology connects us, we are also more aware of the need to enjoy one another's proximity. Who could be satisfied by hugging a screen?
This piece of multimedia art was a thought-provoking and relevant pastiche of modern tech culture, exploring the edge of contemporary cultural theory, the avatar, social networking, and techno-social communities. Augmented, itself, by technology both inside the theatre and on the world wide web, this piece is part of the global movement of tech awareness, and tech discussion - what exactly constitutes proper use of the connective technologies available to us? Continuous City explores the virtual world as one that is more closely tied to the emotions and - dareIsay - Western conceptions of ethics than popular thought might admit, swirling in a succession of images of ourselves, mimicking life in the virtual world, and again, metatheatrically mimicking the virtual world onstage in real life. This was definitely a perceptive piece, adding more virtual glitter to the poignant post-postpostmodern miscellany of Luminato 2009.