Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

The Digital Commons, the Art of Being Looked at, and EXTREMELY PUBLIC DISPLAYS OF PRIVACY

Written by Katy Otto
Active Image
As part of Philadelphia’s renown Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe, I recently attended New Paradise Laboratories's newest work, Extremely Public Displays of Privacy. New Paradise Laboratories is a performance ensemble that imagines theater as visionary experience. The pieces value sudden inspiration, paradigm shifts, and shocks to the system. The company aims towards the ecstatic in both the form and content of its work. It uses a variety of creative strategies to achieve its ends, including company-devising techniques, cross-media design elements, and installation in alternative spaces. The collaborative environment of its working process influences the content of the pieces.
As part of Philadelphia’s renown Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe, I recently attended New Paradise Laboratories's newest work, Extremely Public Displays of Privacy. New Paradise Laboratories is a performance ensemble that imagines theater as visionary experience. The pieces value sudden inspiration, paradigm shifts, and shocks to the system. The company aims towards the ecstatic in both the form and content of its work. It uses a variety of creative strategies to achieve its ends, including company-devising techniques, cross-media design elements, and installation in alternative spaces. The collaborative environment of its working process influences the content of the pieces.

Directed by Whit MacLaughlin, a visionary artistic force in Philadelphia, this piece is the story of Fess and Beatrix, two women who meet online. Fess is a mother in her forties—a schoolteacher who writes amazing songs that nobody hears. Beatrix is a performance artist in her early twenties and a mysterious entrepreneur who manipulates Fess, sweeping her off her feet and into a surreal landscape that quickly becomes all too extremely public. Part musical, part illusion, part real-life drama, Extremely Public Displays of Privacy is a performance adventure in three acts.

Act 1: Online at extremelypublicdisplays.com. Wherever you’re at—home, at work, in a coffee shop, on a train—get to know Fess and Beatrix as they get to know each other.

Act 2: A free walking tour, with destinations outlined online.

Act 3: A live, ticketed event at the Philly Fringe.

MacLaughlin had the following to say about the piece: “The development of online communication tools has opened up a new space. A lot of things have moved into that space, and a good number of those things are commercial. If it is going to mean something other than advertisement, artists are going to have to intervene and intervene forcefully. The brilliance of the web is that it goes right into your house and can deliver things you want efficiently. There are political ramifications for this, though, and personal, soul-based ones. To not present fiction in cyberspace would be like having a printing press but not printing novels. We need to import soul into cyberspace.”


 
I interviewed Annie Enneking, who played the lead of Fess and also wrote the songs for the performance, about her participation in the show. 
 

Katy: How did you become acquainted with New Paradise Laboratories? What was it like working with MacLaughlin?

Annie: I’ve been a huge admirer of NPL’s work for many years. I met MacLaughlin when he came to Minneapolis to direct a show at the Children’s Theatre Company. I subsequently came to Philadelphia to study with the company and to see productions of Prom, Batch, Fatebook, The Word, and Freedom Club (the latter two pieces a collaboration between NPL and Brian Osborne, and NPL and The Riot Group, respectively). I found my mind blown in a particular way by each piece, as though I had witnessed a strange, live alchemy. I approached MacLaughlin about making a piece loosely based on the archetype of Joan of Arc, and we created The Joans, a concert-theater work, which we did in Minneapolis, my hometown.
 
Katy: Were the songs in Extremely Public Displays written specifically for the show? What was it like to craft them? Did you have a role in establishing the soundscape for the whole piece? The remixes?

Annie: All the songs for Extremely Public Displays were written specifically for the show, yes, but for one that has had a life outside the piece. The collaborative team was working with a ton of source material: our own experiences, the film Persona, the books The Magus, Remainder, and a William Gibson novel (the name of which escapes me), and, of course, the Internet and social media itself, etc. I had a very curious experience writing these songs. The piece developed slowly over time, and even though many ideas were explored and then discarded, everything that anyone had ever said sort of hovered over the piece, so I found myself writing whatever came to me without censoring what was coming down the pipe, and I literally felt like things were coming down a pipe.

Songs just shot through me sometimes, and we found that there was a strange fiction developing through the songs, as though the songs themselves were a clue to some mystery in the piece, little fortune cookies. There are a few songs that are quite dark, but I also went through a really big pop phase, which surprised me. Some of the songs took a few days to write. A few of them took three minutes. I had nothing to do with the remixes. That was Jorge [my co-creator and -writer]! The first time I heard a remix I said, “I feel like someone has rearranged my soul!” which I meant in a good way.
 
Katy: In what ways do you think Fess’s age as a musician, is significant?

Annie: I do feel that Fess’s age as a musician matters to her, especially with regard to where she is in her career. She basically doesn’t have one. She used to have a career in music, but she gave it all up: lack of confidence in herself and in her music, an inability to withstand the intrusion of eyes (an audience), and then life—in all its awesomeness (kids, marriage, stable job)—called and she put those dreams aside.

There are very few older female musicians who have careers anymore unless they were established when they were younger. Lucinda Williams might be an exception (though she started young, she wasn’t established on commercial radio until she was in her forties), and maybe even Bonnie Raitt, but where is she now? Chrissie Hynde still gets her due, but she came up when she was younger. PJ Harvey, for sure, but she’s also been at it for a long time—and now that she’s not the sort of obsessive “I’ll rock you and then fuck you until you die” siren-monster anymore, her record sales have gone down. Joni Mitchell, of course, but she’s not treated as relevant anymore, or is only considered relevant for stuff she did when she was in her twenties and thirties.

I think the piece has a lot to do with mortality and wondering when your time is up and wondering about whether or not you count anymore. I think both men and women question their relevance, wonder if they missed their chance for a certain kind of life, worry that they are not fulfilled to their core, have some potential self still inside. The wail of the midlife crisis is the interior (and perhaps imagined) self, wanting to bust out of its conventional shell.
 
Katy: What reflections do you have on the sexual/romantic tinges of Fess and Bea’s relationship?
 
Annie: Is Beatrix the Internet? Is she a younger version of Fess? Is she God? Temptation? A force for good or ill? Art? Beatrix is many things, therefore Fess’s relationship to her is many things. The erotic component in their relationship, to me, is an expression of a deep desire to be one with something in a world that makes you think any one thing can be the one. With the Internet, you’re three clicks away from anything you want, and lots of things you didn’t even know you wanted or even knew existed. The Internet treats you like a lover. It listens to you, it responds to you, it anticipates your needs, and begins to shape those needs. The idea that there is an entity in the world, a mystery keeping track of you (as the analogy of the UPS package is laid out in the piece), is intriguing to me. Is it good to be watched? What is the effect of being watched? Is there a therapeutic effect to exposure? What do people do when they pray? They’re exposing their interior selves to some imagined other. How is that not like some aspects of social media at its core? How is that not what Fess ends up doing?
 
Katy: As a musician, and particularly a female musician, what are some of your thoughts about performance, audience, and being looked at? What kinds of questions would you hope the performance makes viewers ask?

Annie: What is private? Is it the access of your interiority that you give to another human being? Is it brushing your teeth? Is it taking a bath? Is it privileged information? What does it mean to be a lover? What does it mean to be an artist? What does it mean to love yourself? Is loving yourself the most private act? We have a whole generation of folks who are staring into a little camera, broadcasting themselves from their bedrooms. We wondered at the narcissistic, womblike Eden being engendered by this ability to have an experience and simultaneously transmit that experience. We talked a lot about “the mirror effect.” How a person can peer into the lens and somehow seem to be peering into the viewer.

For me, as a performer/creator, it was incredible to work in a performative way without feeling a need to perform. To act without acting. To simply allow the camera to have access to me. To allow myself access to my self. To communicate, as best I could, in a one-to-one way with as many people as possible. If the eye of the camera is the viewer, and I have an intimate relationship with that eye, then I am simply allowing access, revealing, in the simplest way possible, that I exist here with you (and you and you and you, of course, but I wanted the feeling to be that there was a single other).

What has been discovered over time while NPL has made these pieces INSIDE the Internet, is that when a person creates an alter ego/character for a piece, they end up making a more awesome version of themselves. I found that the veil of the Internet, the mirror of the camera, and stewing in source material allowed me to make a piece of art almost every single day.

Katy: How much of a role did you have in developing Fess’s character? What was the process for the story line development like?

Annie: During research and development of the piece (which happened online, via Facebook), I was on a roll and had made a ton of work as Fess that I was really satisfied with, particularly this little series she did called “Death in the Afternoon.” I had Fess post as her status: “I am so awesome. I fucking love myself,” and I have to tell you, that felt like the most private thing ever. I felt like I had crossed a line. Saying that on the Internet felt like a radical act. I don’t know why. Maybe because there’s an inherently masochistic aspect to social media—Are people watching? Do they care? Am I stupid to put this into the world? Why do I keep talking?—and I felt I had transcended that. Or maybe because that’s what we’re all trying to do in there: to find the awesome part of ourselves. The woman developing Beatrix posted something that Fess stole and used as her own profile picture: “Keep calm and quit giving a fuck.” That’s both an actual goal and a way of signifying something.

Katy: Do you find yourself thinking about Beatrix now, even when you are not performing?
 
Annie: The sadomasochistic component in the piece makes sense to me. The idea of being tested makes sense to me. Lots of people know they’re capable of withstanding an intensity of experience that the universe has not yet engineered for them. We talked a lot about how Beatrix’s effect might be that she break Fess down in a way that allows Fess to break out. That cruelty might be a better part of benevolence, like taking a machete to the soul: get all the unessential stuff out of the way so all the essential stuff can come through. I felt it last night as I performed. I realized that in the end, what happens, in a metaphysical sense, is that Fess expends this huge amount of concentrated energy and blows her own roof off. She breaks through something with this energy, or gathers all her mojo up again, in front of people. She remakes rock and roll in her own image, instead of constructing herself into the image of rock and roller. She takes back the idea of the concert. She gives the most private concert in the world. It is Fess’s spiritual assignment to make contact with every single person who comes into her room.
 
Photos from Act III of Extremely Public Displays of Privacy, 2011

Share this post