One of the more interesting thing about attending festivals is seeing how different performance pieces speak to one another. In their second week, the Fusebox Festival line-up included some interesting offerings at the intersection of performance and technology.
Michelle Ellsworth's performance piece, Preparation for the Obsolescence of the Y Chromosome, is a meditation on a world without men. I'm sure that brings to mind stereotypes of man-hating femnazis, but Ellsworth's work is quite thoughtful, complex, and multi-faceted.
The piece was inspired by research which indicated the Y chromosome has been shedding genes, leaving it with a mere 500 in comparison to the X chromosome's 1,500. This led some scientists to wonder whether the Y chromosome would eventually become extinct.
Much of Ellsworth's work can be found on her website. The performance piece itself is multi-media, with Ellsworth taking the audience on a tour of the website and attempting to explain the project, as well as asking for participation from the audience in expanding the archive.
For the project, Ellsworth interviewed women, asking them which parts of the male species were the most relevant. The project explores, among other things, aparati which could fulfill the roles men currently play, the choreography of various “man dances” Ellsworth has collected, and the creation of a man archive. Exploring the question from both a macro and micro level, Ellsworth asks: what might be missed when men go?
Some of the project feels like a tongue-in-cheek exploration of gender roles – like when Ellsworth creates a facsimile of the male gaze in the form of a giant eyeball which will follow women's movement. Or Ellsworth's attempt to bottle up women's feelings by quite literally having them spit in bottles after intense emotional experiences with men.
But other bits are quite poignant – like the Good Dad / Bad Dad texting system, which allows women to check in with an imaginary father figure via text, asking questions or getting advice. It comes out at the end of the piece that Ellsworth has recently lost her own father, and that preparing for the potential loss of man on a macro level in some ways might help her (and others) deal with the very personal losses of individual men in their lives.
With new research indicating the Y chromosome might be evolving instead of disappearing, Ellsworth's piece becomes a meditation on preparing for loss in general. How can one prepare for the loss of a father? A brother? A husband? What would you want left behind to remind you of the man? What, if anything, could take his place?
During the performance, Ellsworth invited men from the audience to record their own man dances, which would be uploaded onto the website. She also had a man create a cast of his hand in alginate mold, so that we never forget the unique properties of man hands.
Ellsworth will accept suggestions for areas of further research in the R&D section of the website. Whether or not the Y chromosome ends up becoming obsolete, Ellsworth says she is committed to creating best practices for preservation of the male species.
Ellsworth's manic/anxious performance persona makes it difficult to know whether to take her and the work completely seriously, but it is interesting to think about what properties, if any, might be unique to the male sex, and the value (both positive and negative) which is culturally attributed to it. I would encourage everyone to check out the website, which includes videos by Ellsworth, and take away their own judgements.
We all have those Facebook friends we think about deleting but never do. For his 30th birthday, Brian Lobel took the plunge and created a performance art piece which allowed audience members to vote on whether he would keep or delete each of his Facebook friends – and then he did it.
Lobel's friends were alerted to the project and had the opportunity to either pre-emptively delete Lobel or to give him some ammunition for his 60 second defense of their friendship before voting by a rotating three-person audience panel at a coffee shop.
Rather than reviving the purge at Fusebox, Lobel created a performance piece surrounding the experience, taking the e-mail responses of several of his friends upon being informed of the project and reading them before the audience. Voting cards were passed around the audience, allowing attendees to make their own determinations and compare them to what the judges decided during the actual purge.
In this way, the performance becomes a discussion of the ethics of Facebook friending – of who stays, who goes, and why. Audience members are invited to log into Lobel's computer and delete a friend of their own, or to add back someone they wished had never been unfriended in the first place.
The responses Lobel received in response to his project were varied, but often quite intense. Some friends were filled with privacy concerns. Others didn't want their fate reduced to a decision made by a stranger, or felt like Lobel was turning them into a pawn in a game they didn't want to play. Still others leapt to defend their connections to Lobel, or to even just say they hoped to make it through the purge.
In an age which allows us to friend and unfriend at the click of a button, what does friendship mean? Which Facebook friends would you be willing to fight for, and what is holding you back from unfriending others?
Lobel's piece explores not only the ethics of on-line friendship practices, but the ways in which friendships evolve (or more importantly don't) in the social media sphere. That Facebook friend from high school – are they still seventeen in your mind? What would it be like to truly friend the adult living in the world today, instead of your memories of yesteryear? Could un-friending and re-friending allow you to truly meet each other for the first time?
Interspersed with the rest of the story, Lobel provides backstory of his relationship with Grant, an ex-lover who died. Lobel went back to his Friendster account to retrieve their first messages to one another, only to find that Grant's page said “Add Friend.” Unsure of who un-friended whom back in 2006, Lobel's piece is also a meditation on loss and the temporality of the social media experience.
Do on-line friendships match up with real world connections? What does it mean to be Facebook friends? And what is the significance of an on-line profile when it's the last remnant keeping a deceased friend's social media presence alive? These are only some of the questions Lobel's work raises.
If you want to participate in the decision-making process of an actual live Facebook purge, head to Sa-Ten this Thursday and Friday from 1-7pm where Kymberlie Quong-Charles will be keeping or deleting her Facebook friends in real time based on feedback from spectators. Come and just watch, or throw in your two cents, and learn a little something about what friendship means in the modern world in the process.
Fusebox Festival is FREE, and continues in venues all across Austin through April 12.
This article was originally published by The Horn on 04/09/2015.