Features Published 27 November 2014

Can You Program a Metaphor?

Over the next few weeks Tim Bano will be documenting Battersea Arts Centre's Online scratch programme, speaking to the artists involved, watching their work develop and exploring the different forms online art and performance can take. In this first piece he looks at the issues surrounding intimacy, privacy and the internet.
Tim Bano

In 2000 the artistic directors of Battersea Arts Centre, David Jubb and Tom Morris, came up with the ‘scratch’ system. It allows artists to perform works in progress to small audiences. The audience members pay what they want, and offer feedback on the work. Fourteen years on and this process, adopted and expanded upon across the world, is expanding again. It’s going online. Artists are being given the tools to create digital art, they are working with programmers and scratching pieces that, eventually, will be whittled down to one commission.


 Does anyone know the wi-fi password? Oh, it’s on the board. Come on, come on. Connect. Ok! I’m online.

One of the pieces going through the Scratch process looks at corruption of the interaction between human and machine. It uses technology to provoke our distrust of technology, our frustration with it, our inclination towards resistentialism. It foments that red mist, the desire to hurl your expensive phone to the ground and watch it shatter just because YouTube’s loading too slowly. It’s a great idea: art in a digital space that has the ability to comment on its own limitations. Interactions with computers do, in popular culture, tend to become corrupted. Look at The Matrix, Skynet, cinema phone lines, Spike Jonze’s Her, this clip from Tim & Eric. Where does this distrust come from?

Maybe it’s simply a matter of miscommunication. If I ask you to think about a heart of gold, no problem. Humans can cope with metaphor. A computer isn’t so good at that. A heart of gold, to a computer, would literally be a heart made of gold. Imagine asking a computer to interpret TS Eliot. It would be rubbish. Can you programme metaphor? This slippage between the metaphorical power of human speech and literal capacity of computers causes problems. It’s a language barrier, and one that is not easy to break down.


(If you want this section to be more intimate, you can listen to the below while I mutter it gently into your ears).

Another piece currently being scratched as part of this programme is an online recreation of a live one-on-one performance. One of its most important aspects is its intimacy; is it possible to recreate that intimacy in a virtual reality? The person on the other end is not really there. She is not a metre away, she’s somewhere else completely. Theatre gains much of its magic from the close, visceral quality of live performance, from the possibility that anything could happen and from the alchemical transformation of a real human being into someone else right before your eyes. Online interaction tends to lack that intimacy – every message I send can be carefully planned, every emoji in a Facebook message can be perfectly placed. Put a screen, put an unknowable distance between me and the performer and, well, it all just seems less real.

How can the Internet make someone feel special? In the unconscionably vast digital wasteland, what am I? The sum total of my digital footprint – every email I’ve sent and received, every YouTube video I’ve posted, Tweet I’ve tweeted, document I’ve stored in my cloud, Reddit post I’ve upvoted, Facebook status I’ve liked, iMovie or Garageband project I’ve never completed, song I’ve up- and downloaded on iTunes and Spotify, every Game of Thrones episode I’ve streamed, every series I’ve wasted time watching on Netflix or iPlayer or 4od or ITV Player or NowTV  – it all amounts to, what, maybe a few hundred gigabytes? Let’s put that in context: a thousand megabytes is a gigabyte. A thousand gigabytes is a terabyte. A thousand of those is a petabyte, then exabyte, zettabyte, yottabyte, each time multiplying the previous by a thousand. Wikipedia (every faithful) tells me that, in 2013, the internet was roughly about 4 zettabytes. That doesn’t include everyone’s hard drives. And somewhere, some insignificant prick of data in this, is me. Hardly life-affirming stuff.

Except, online, that intimacy manifests in a different dimensional space. Actually, the digital world is easy to be intimate with. There is a strange feeling of possession over those weird videos you find late at night, 3 hours into an accidental YouTube binge. Late night laptop hugging has a deeply personal, individualistic feel but it’s not born out of someone else performing to you. It’s yours, your own. Nothing feels quite as invasive, as intimate, as reading someone else’s browser history.


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A third digital performance offers a literal life hack. It reflects on privacy, individuality and projections of self in an online space. In any given forum, the self that we tend to project is at some kind of remove, and usually a significant remove, from the self we project in the external world. Bolshy Twitter trolls are frightened little teenagers, attractive teenage girls are predatory old men, prolific Facebook status updaters are socially awkward bores.

The absence of a human connection and the supposed anonymity that the internet offers allow us to be an idealised (or a bastardised) version of ourself. It doesn’t matter if you’re vlogging or chatting, if you’re Zoella or Catfish, the chances are that you are not who you claim to be. In which case, all online interaction is a performance of sorts, it’s all theatre.

Is it ethical to lie about who you are? Theatre audiences are invited, from the very beginning, to suspend disbelief – to buy into a big lie. The proliferation of data mining and security surveillance means that internet interaction is often unethical. So, actually, while ‘the real you’ (whatever that means) isn’t really present in any given online projection of yourself – your Facebook page, Twitter feed, OK Cupid profile – the big data collectors, like Google, can track everything that you don’t show in these public interactions. They know every site you’ve ‘accidentally’ clicked on. Ever. They know how long you spent on each page, where you clicked next, what you typed next, what you bought, they know your name, address, phone number, credit card number, mother’s maiden name. But don’t worry, because this will only be used for security purposes. Hey, friend, just look at our simple privacy policy, or this one or this one. You’ll love it!


[From Anya Reiss’ version of Spring Awakening]

Moritz: Shall we Google it?

Melchior: What?

Moritz: Whatever it is you need to know.


             Moritz goes to Melchior’s laptop, sees what is already written.

Moritz: ‘How do you know what’s right and what’s wrong?’ Why did you ask that?

Melchior: Wendla’s dead. Because of me. No one replied.


The computer pings, answers suddenly come thick and fast.


            Melchior looks back to the computer.


Melchior: I should reply.

Moritz: There’s no answers there.

The winning BAC Scratch Online commission will be selected by a panel on Saturday 29 November 2014 and developed over the next three months.

 David Jubb on the Scratch Process (The Space)



Tim Bano

Tim is a freelance arts writer and theatre critic. He writes regularly for Time Out, The Stage and other publications. He is co-creator of Pursued By A Bear, Exeunt Magazine's theatre podcast.



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