"Light My Wirefire: Live Performance in Cyberspace"
by Amy Davila
Wirefire can be found at www.entropy8zuper.org at any time of day or night, any day of the week, and every Thursday at midnight, a new live performance occurs under the direction of Auriea Harvey and Michael Samyn. This online performance utilizes technology that combines chat, sounds, images, animations, live camera streams to form an improvisational expression. More than just a web-based performance of random images and sound streaming through cyberspace, Wirefire generates a real-time, interactive forum between the artist and the audience.
The system resides entirely on the Internet allowing the performers and the viewers to be in any location, the only tools that are required are a current web browser and the Flash 5 plug-in. The project exists in three forms: Random, Live and Replay modes. Upon entering the site, the user experiences the Random mode where Flash movies begin streaming onto the viewer's screen. This format allows the software to become the "live" performer. The program mixes files at random from a library of Wirefire material, creating a unique experience each time the user ventures on to the site. But is this really "live" performance if the human element is discarded? Philip Auslander refers to the Oxford English Dictionary's definition that "live" is considered "a performance, heard or watched at the time of its occurrence, as distinguished from one recorded on film, tape, etc." This definition would defend the position that the Random mode of Wirefire is a live experience as it is not merely a "playback device" whereby the software is just accessing performances carried out by humans at an earlier time. It is its own separate reality, existing in the present, but without a human performer. This new format of performance thus "undermines the idea that live performance is a specifically human activity." Digital performances conducted by a machine "subverts the centrality of the live, organic presence of human beings to the experience of live performance." A redefinition of liveness is not necessarily required but one must reconsidered the "existential significance attributed to live performance."
Peggy Phelan would probably disagree with Auslander, however. Phelan would argue that lacking a corporeal element does prevent this format from being a live performance. According to Phelan, the ontology and value of live performance is constructed on the notions of the performer's materiality and mortality. Both Auslander and Phelan agree that liveness is explained through sharing a particular space and time. But the exchange of emotions existing in the present is also a decisive element of live performance, according to Phelan. Thus performance is manifested as an exchange between a human performer and a human viewer, which invokes a common "experience of pain." The viewer recognizes the performer as a live being, who demands endurance from the audience, so that the spectator experiences the shared emotion of mortality. Thus the exchange allows the viewer to realize their sameness. Liveness exists within a common time and space but also within a shared carnal knowledge between the performer and the audience. While the Random form of Wirefire is a technological entity responding in an "autonomous, unpredictable, improvisational" manner, it is still not "a-live". The software is unable to share human intimacy with its viewers. But if the viewer is unaware of who is control, machine or human, then does this aspect of liveness matter?
The issue of liveness becomes more acute once the human orchestrators begin to take control. These mortal performers make their presence known every Thursday at midnight, Belgium time or 6pm EST, as the viewer steps into the Live format of Wirefire. The performance that occurred on Thursday March 21, 2002, began with sampled operatic voices laced with random sounds. The image of a landscape crawling with shadowy black vines comes into view. The performers appear floating in space encapsulated in small bubbles hovering within the screen plane, their images frozen staring at their computer screens just like all the unseen viewers around the world. There are a few clumps of black spots on the screen representing the other audience members. Only the performers know exactly how many are logged on, but it is unknown who they are or where they exist.
The performance generates images of fog, bats, fire, religious iconography, flowers, doves, along with sounds mirroring those images. Then discernable voices make their way through the looped melodic singing, the voice says "smoke them out of their caves," a sample taken from one of US President Bush's speeches. Two long smoke flames appear on the screen, possibly representing the Twin Towers. Colored sheep dot the space, possibly representing the American public. Again Bush's voice is heard, "We will not fail." An image of an airplane flies by dropping American dollar signs and British pound signs out of its rear. The performers' movement from the web-cameras are crude, the only element of their participation that the viewer is aware of are the bits of text chat that appear on the screen as they communicate with one another, "A- ok, I got it running," "A- it was a bit too loud."
Utilizing movies from the Wirefire server, sound files in either .swf or .wav format, and image files in either .swf or .jpg format; the performers create a multi-layered, nonlinear environment. The artists can even control if and when the performance will incorporate elements of audience participation. The digital environment begins to render a multitude of green orbs dropping from the top of the screen, which read "touch me". Once the mouse touches the image, the innocent bubbles erupt accompanied by the sound of an exploding bomb. The voice says "Sorry I only meant to blow up that one thing." The game-like atmosphere creates an increased intensity during the performance. The user, the viewer, the player becomes an active participant adding to the level of animosity and emotion surrounding the images and sounds of war and destruction. The artists again demand the user's interaction by suggesting the player click any key on their keyboard. A gong sound resonates in a field of flowers.
Text appears stating, "one of the biggest of the bombs is a daisy cutter." The sounds of bombs again reverberate and garish flowers begin popping up all over the screen, filling the whole space. The imagery is reminiscent of the book The Crazy Iris, the title which refers to an unusual occurrence of irises blooming in the fields after the atomic bombs were exploded in Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The book deals with the powerful metaphor of human will and perseverance. But the imagery on the screen shifts quickly and becomes more aligned with the Daisy Cutter bomb used by the U.S. military on civilians. These images and sounds conjure up intense emotions, created by both the performers and the viewer participant. But each person must go through these experiences alone, as singular entities rather than a communal audience. Each audience member only recognizes the other as a speck of dust on the screen, until one makes oneself known through text. Something is absent, a balance of the "cerebral with the emotional, the physical with spiritual" which exists when an audience absorbs and responds in the same physical moment.
The previous question then shifts slightly: Is physicality a component of liveness, the audience's physicality as well as the performer's physicality? Auslander would argue that "liveness is first and foremost a temporal relationship, a relationship of simultaneity." Thus, shared time is the dominant characteristic of a live performance not shared space. The anonymous audience of Wirefire collectively experienced the performance on Thursday night, without jointly sharing a physical space; the emotions were nonetheless real. One must suspect that each participant felt they were a part of something live or alive. But there still remains a need for people to gather, "to retain collective experiences, to respond as a group." This is just one characteristic of traditional performing art, which cannot be duplicated within the digital realm. However, the important element of any live performance is that a message, an expression was conveyed in a singular moment; a present was shared amongst a group of people. Phelan would agree that "performance's only life is in the present" and that present will not be repeated. Thus, performance takes on a new form once it is recorded, the "document of a performance then is only a spur to memory, an encouragement of memory to become present."
The archival or Replay mode of Wirefire exists for this reason. For those who would like to experience a similar but varied form of the Thursday performance, one can come to the site and view it in Replay mode. After every performance a data file is saved and the entire show can be replayed from the server. While the files are shown in the same order the timing is random, and it is archived without chat, live images and real-time effects produced during the Live show. The Replay mode conjures all of the images and sounds experienced in Random and Live formats but the experience is different than that experienced on Thursday night.
On that night, the viewer witnessed a break within the tense display of the war-like imagery as a text-chat appeared on the screen that read "I like the flowers". Regardless of whether that comment came from the performer or an audience member, the tension of the scene was broken as the thoughts of the Daisy Cutter bomb was replaced with colorful flowers and the suggestion of life and rebirth. A positive note had displaced the heavy realization of the surrounding destruction during the real-time performance. The somber emotions became overwhelming for someone out there, and they decided to speak out. However, the viewer of the replay version of Thursday's performance will not experience that subtle shift of emotion. They may feel the need to step away from the monitor or turn the computer off completely. Regardless, the experience will be different. As Phelan notes, performance ceases to be performance once it is archived. Performance cannot be "saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations," because the exchange between the performer and the viewer cannot be realized once the moment is gone.
Auriea Harvey and Michael Samyn, the creators of Wirefire, orchestrated that moment, recorded or live, allowing a shared experience across cyberspace, touching each viewer regardless of their physical domain. The penetration of this digital performance is unmatched by traditional forms of performance art and makes the questions of liveness seem obsolete. A dynamic, interactive environment bridging race, nationality and geography creates a bond of communication that could never be achieved within a physical arena. Each audience member is connected digitally and remotely as emotion and intensity sustains itself across the wires.
The collaboration between these two artists, Harvey from New York, NY and Samyn from Ronse, Belgium, evolved from a relationship created online. Samyn and Harvey met on the Internet utilizing text and eventually video chat. Both the originators wanted to achieve a theatrical environment where people could connect remotely through an online event, which could serve as a "communication and creative exercise." However, the rudimentary tools of communication, created a barrier, "a gulf of space and time" which prevented a true exchange of emotions. The two artists created an online "office" which afforded them a meeting place, a place for collaboration but not intimacy. The question kept resurfacing, "what does one do when you fall in love with a 160 x 120 pixel image?" Wirefire was developed to answer that question and fill that void of intimacy, a need to share the moment, the present as Phelan would put it, with one another.
Wirefire not only creates an intimate environment for the performers but also for the audience. Each individual experiences something collective and singular through this multi-user, multi-viewer, multi-media interactive real-time performance. "Digital technologies have reopened fundamental questions related to performance," thus the digital influence on performing art is undeniable and consequential. Regardless of whether it is "live" by the standards of traditional thinkers, Wirefire generates a performance like no other. Through Wirefire, thoughts and emotions are communicated and ingested, defying human or machine orchestration and remote or physical origination.