According to Lifehack, the #5 best reason to take a break from social media is to “see how beautiful the world is.” That seems obvious, but in The Great Outdoors, writer and director Annie Dorsen plays devil’s advocate to the tautology that says Mother Nature and Technology are inevitably at odds. This performance piece has audiences lie down in an inflatable “planetarium” to gaze into a virtual night sky while pondering random snippets from social media conversations. A commission from FIAF’s Crossing the Line series, which just finished a brief run for an intimate, and very comfortably reclined audience, it posits that even the most prosaic human speech of online platforms is worthy of contemplation such as we might reserve for a sky full of shooting stars, or at least it deserves a closer listen. So, if you’d prefer to keep an eye on your Twitter feed rather than a towhee, Dorsen gives you her blessing.
Still, it seems at first that The Great Outdoors might be a challenge to experience reason #5. We leave our devices outside that inflatable dome, installed on the stage of the Florence Gould Hall, settle onto pillows and imagine ourselves “around a virtual campfire underneath the stars.” We do see plenty of stars, the Milky Way and the moon, too, thanks to lushly cosmic video by Dorsen and Ryan Holsopple. But if we are gathered for that ancient tradition of fireside storytelling, the tales we hear are not your typical campfire fare. In fact, “stories” would be overstating it a bit, and the campfire exists purely in our imaginations.
Instead, the actress Kaija Matiss intones comments that posted to online chat sites the day of the performance and which software designed by Miles Thompson and Marcel Schwittlick has randomly culled for the evening’s script. This is in the vein of other recent work by Dorsen, in which she deconstructs text to consider what we mean with the words we use and explores the reactivity of live performance to text that is algorithmically selected and fed to performers in real time. Her application of algorithms to Hamlet created a surprisingly compelling run-with-the-bulls through the tortured mind of the Danish prince, in A Piece of Work (2013).
In The Great Outdoors, given that the online comments were posted the same day as the performance, it’s not a leap to expect them to reflect the day’s headlines to some extent. Judging from the script of the performance I attended, however, what registers most isn’t the bigger world we live in or a national zeitgeist but a personal, low-grade despair: a young wife who listed in detail the amount and nature of her family’s debt; a man who related his failures with women and admitted to being terminally lonely; another who obsessed about the relative importance of ACT scores and GPA’s for college admission. If the text had a refrain, it was a lament of confusion: Really? Seriously? What? And its longer variants: What does that even mean? What are you talking about?
In comparison, the news came through infrequently, or at least in shorter snippets of text. Less than 48 hours after dangerous sparring (on social media, again) between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, the idea of nuclear armageddon never broke through the chatter, and North Korea was mentioned only once (“Kim Jong-un speaks better English than Trump”). Trump was referenced one other time (#resisttrump) – unless the sex addict who shared online about his inability to stop groping his secretaries was a troll for the leader of the free world. Equifax got a mention, and there were two oblique nods to recent natural disasters. Among less immediate topics, the specters of Bitcoin, Canadian milk subsidies, and AI flashed past like the shooting stars we watched overhead. “Communism” accompanied a setting sun while “Democracy” came out with the first planets (coincidence?).
Watching The Great Outdoors might be what it is like to listen to outer space at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Very Large Array, on a clear night in the New Mexico desert. While the cosmos whirls above us, the horizon tilts and the moon comes into greater and greater focus, we can hear what’s being said “out there” somewhere. But instead of beeps and crashes signaling extraterrestrial life or dying supernovas, the language we are picking up with our radio dishes says “LMAO,” “Absolutely,” “No,” “Yes,” “Thank you,” “Same here.”
The Romantics believed human nature could not be fully understood in the absence of deep understanding and respect for the natural world. Having us gaze out into the heavens to look more deeply into our Facebooked souls, The Great Outdoors wants to tap into the Romantic quest, but ultimately seems to suggest that the answers can no longer be grasped in contemplation of a mountain peak or a river valley but are rather made for us in the crystalline canyons of Silicon Valley.