“Am I pretty or ugly?” When typed into Youtube, this simple (you might even say innocent) query produces over half a million results. It’s this question and these innumerable low-lit bedroom videos of young women asking it, that launched artist researcher Louise Orwin into the heady, gaudy world of the teenage girl on the internet and IRL, a world Orwin handles with equal measures of tenderness and horror.
Both meticulously researched and unrestrainedly emotionally charged, Pretty Ugly is far, far more than the research project about a phenomenon that its promotional material suggests it is. Orwin is our guide and our cipher, an awed and aghast interpreter of data whose fallibility renders her uniquely accessible to us. In an experiment that was to take over her life in more ways than she could imagine, Orwin posed as three fifteen year olds, Amanda, Becky and Baby, posting their own ‘pretty or ugly’ videos online. The responses from the internet trolls read almost like parodies, like the niggling voice of insecurity in all of our heads: an unprovoked, utterly merciless backlash of misogyny, intolerance and cruelty.
Orwin reads the script from the projector screen, paragraphs of txt-speak pop culture referencing comment box almost-poetry that, as the show goes on, move from a recognisable sort of mission statement to horrified garble. “This is a show about teenage girls yeah teenage girls because who else knows more about the internet and tumblr?” but these adolescent creatures “stroking their filthy accessories.” The teenage girls terrifying her with the extent of their careless confidence, their agonising insecurity, their sexual precocity. When Orwin’s ‘undercover’ as a teenage girl, she’s similarly terrified – of the world, online and IRL, and what it demands of her. She’s not a teenager, she’s 26, she tells us repeatedly, obsessively even, and we understand it’s a reassurance for her as much as us.
Orwin seems to be concerned not with revelations but rather the unflinching declarations of difficult truths. What we encounter in the show are only the horror stories we already know in the backs of our minds, from the front pages of tabloid newspapers. The commentators tell Amanda/Becky/Baby that she’s ugly. They tell her to kill herself. Others private message her to tell her she’s perfect, she’s beautiful, she’s really beautiful, would she pls send some naked pics of herself or strip on webcam?
Comparisons to Bryony Kimmings’ Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model (reviewed here by Dan Hutton) may abound, but I can’t help but feel Pretty Ugly is a different breed of show. Yes, it’s part-interactive lecture, part- crusade, part-protest, but it is also immersive in a somewhat more unstable sense of the world, and it seems we are a little less safe here than in Kimmings’ hands. Orwin shows us that the Pretty or Ugly? question is merely the key that opens a door to a terrifying place, an insight into an onslaught that Orwin herself found it difficult to gain any objective distance from.
Her misleadingly simple summary of her project, that she ‘asked a lot of questions and was told a lot of things’ is a wry take on the way the show inflicts itself upon us, a brutal but entirely necessary information overload to the tune of loud pop with singalong subtitles, in headache-inducing fluorescent colour. Through all that is chaotic, all that is extreme – the merciless audio-visual collage, the chat roulette recordings and live feeds, Orwin’s text ricocheting between traumatised confessions and coldly detached statistics – we realise how teenagers (and not just girls) are learning about the world, all hyper-mega-meta, where trivialities are enormities and image is everything.
To call it nightmarish is an understatement, that doesn’t go so far as to the levels of distortion Orwin finds not only online but everywhere once she starts looking – kids crying like adults, adults dressing like kids, adults who like kids, kids who like adults to like them because they want to be like adults. As much as this suggests onstage anarchy, Pretty Ugly’s multimedia mash-up belies an impressive intricacy and impeccable sense of timing. It is the precise way in which the show is layered and paced, how it clamours and then falls away at just the right moments, that makes us pity rather than simply patronise the girls who put themselves on trial online.
It’s also not simply about teenagers and/or women, their sexualisation or objectification. It’s a show about watching, sitting back and doing nothing, ‘watching on and watching hard’, about reading, representation and responsibility. It’s also a work about the vast unknown territory of the internet, the landscape we still don’t understand and can’t navigate deftly enough to avoid errors. As painful as it is hopeful, as difficult to endure as it is utterly compelling, Pretty Ugly feels genuinely urgent and deeply necessary. It demands, and deserves, to be seen.