Go Deeper

Whit McLaughlin On “Extremely Public Displays of Privacy”

Posted September 15th, 2011

Did you see A.D. Amorosi give some love to New Paradise Laboratories’ 2011 Live Arts AND Philly Fringe offering Extremely Public Displays of Privacy in the Inquirer? We caught up with “Mad Genius” Whit McLaughlin (NOT pictured) to find out more about what’s at stake when we live our lives quite so openly.

Why have you chosen the Internet as part of your performance space?
It’s a great performance space with plenty of interesting features and lots of real estate. It’s easy to get to, is easy on the gas expenditure, and is begging for theater.

What concerns does Extremely Public Displays of Privacy investigate, specifically? Are they concerns or simply general attention focused on our choices about displaying our private lives in public?
Many of us use a web-camera every day to post materials that then are immediately available to everyone in the world with a computer and bandwidth. It’s my private room linked directly to yours. This is unprecedented. Why would I post intimate details of my life in such a public forum? Because I want a reasonable amount of attention. Lack of attention, we know, can cause a baby to perish. Not too mysterious.

After the jump: selves real and projected (which might also be real), the weirdness of multiple presences in the world, and giving theater about the Internet (and the Internet itself) some soul.

Maybe the question is “what’s a reasonable amount of attention?” I also don’t want the Internet to become simply a commercial realm. There’s certainly a danger there.

It has been suggested that there is a therapeutic value to the webcam phenomenon. It has also been suggested that people are willingly submitting to an unprecedented level of scrutiny by governmental agents and commercial concerns. We might feel safer and more accommodated as a result. It’s a trade-off.

Theater has basically treated the Internet as a demon. Most plays on the subject amount to REEFER MADNESS. Wicked stalkers messing up people’s lives. Extremely Public Displays doesn’t take such a narrow view.

Can audiences engage the parts of this show independently, or can they only understand what you’re investigating if they follow you through all three parts?
It’s designed to work in any order–three discreet experiences. I would say, though, that it’s best seen in a row.

Extremely Public Displays of Privacy straddles spaces; part one is online and the rest of the performance is in person. How does this fit in with the idea of self on the Internet, and the self in the real world? Is the self a singular being, or does it too possess the ability to straddle spaces?
That’s an interesting question and the answer is complicated. I think, for the most part, the most common idea of identity revolves around your body as a locale. Put your body in jail and “you” are in jail. It’s the singular nature of being located in a body that gives you existence in the world.

What would happen though if you could upload yourself? You could be in multiple places at the same time. If I kill off one of those “you-s” would that be murder?

The Internet messes with this central body/presence paradigm. Online, I don’t exist solely in space. I exist in a browser as well. My responsive self is pretty much available to everyone 24/7. You don’t need an appointment.

That’s what we’re playing with in Act 3 of Extremely Public Displays. We are in a room with a person. And it feels strange after seeing the characters solely in transitional, web-based places.

The characters in Extremely Public Displays of Privacy use their cell phones, cameras, YouTube, and Facebook to communicate with each other. In this case (and in Fatebook), why did you decide to add this layer of character development?
Because I want to import soul into the web.

Is discussing our lives publicly, or leading them publicly, for that matter, self-exploitative? By constantly using Facebook and other forms of social media, do you think that we all participate in a sort of “pornography” of publicly displaying our private lives? Is something obscene about this projection of self?

Hmmm. I feel you trying to corner me with that question. First of all, is display obscene by nature? People always want to gaze in on each other. We are fascinated with other people. It’s not always obscene to peer into another person’s life. It’s normal to want it. The Internet gives us that opportunity. To display and to watch others display. It’s maybe a bit masochistic, but that doesn’t stop us.

If we define obscene narrowly, I think we might need to admit that publishing a novel is a kind of obscene public display. An author couches his/her life in fiction so it doesn’t feel too exposed, but when a book is published the author hopes that her perceptions will gain access to our (anonymous) minds through the “broadband” medium of print. We always know there’s an author behind the scenes, but we forget about it as we read. It’s very private, very intimate. Very exposed, but with a mask.

In Facebook, we project self, but it just wears a different mask. It’s a joke: “here I am facebook friends, totally exposed and totally hidden at the same time.” Every digital native understands, implicitly, how to read behind the masks of other people in that realm. They get that it’s both fact and fiction.

But obscene?

In our daily lives we construct ourselves to appear the way we’d like, creating a persona that may or may not be our true self—at work, to romantic partners be they current or prospective, etc. Is this different than the technologically-related constructions of identity?
I think actually the way we construct a “technologically-related” identity is pretty close to the truth of how we actually function in the real world. I don’t see that part of the equation to be unprecedented at all.

Through this show, are you investigating only these technological constructions of self, or the more fundamental question of how we choose to present ourselves?
I want to understand and appreciate what a person is. That’s kind of the heart of it.

Extremely Public Displays of Privacy: Act 3, Privacy runs through Saturday as a part of Philly Fringe, at a secret location, then continues its run through October 1. $15 at Philly Fringe, $20 afterwards. Times vary.

–Christina Snyder and Nicholas Gilewicz

Photo credit: Fess Elliot.