The Netizens of the world are in the midst of an identity crisis — there is more information publicly available about each of us, and I have a sneaking suspicion that we have less to fear from the government’s Echelon agencies snooping on our reading lists than we do from Amazon.com’s patented shopper profiling technology. Heck, even the government is turning to the online giants to get its info. AOL recently ignited a firestorm by making public a detailed record of their users’ online searches. They didn’t have names attached to the searches, but the New York Times found it almost laughably easy to identify user No. 4417749 simply by analyzing what subjects she searched on.
This mounting identity crisis is precisely the subject of Super Vision, an elegantly, beautiful and disquieting multimedia production by The Builder’s Association and studio dbox, which I caught at the Yerba Buena Center forthe Arts. Mixing cutting-edge computer technology with real-time action, it’s a show that makes a powerful impact, visually and viscerally.
The action of this unusual and absorbing show plays out in a multi-layered space, with a line of screens and equipment set up like mission control in front of an ambiguous wide-screen space in which live actors interact with each other and with projections of objects in computer-manipulated surroundings.
The main plotline centers on three disparate and yet thematically linked dots in a constellation of datasphere characters, starting with a perfect family who appear to be idyllically situated in front of an Auto-CAD generated Dream House (shades of the ubiquitous TV walls in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451). The father logs onto his computer to enter a kind of Holodeck space — dominated by an IMAX-sized vision of his own face on awebcam — in which he creates money transfer schemes using his young son’s identity.
In another segment, a business traveler with an Indian name and a Ugandan passport endures grilling at the hands of suspicious passport control officials, who call up and manipulate his data in a creepily brisk manner reminiscent of Tom Cruise in the prescient Minority Report. The third segment deals with a young New Yorker who stays in touch via webphone with her aging grandmother who lives in Sri Lanka. Grandma isn’t on The Grid, but her granddaughter, keen to archive the family’s memories, is mining her for data, even as the older woman’s mind is failing.
The stories themselves are fairly straightforward, but what is fascinating about this production is the seamless integration of technology, with its pointed implications about how seamlessly and ruthlessly technology has integrated into our lives. The Builders Association, who put this show together, have been at this since 1994, and the company’s skill at fashioning a richly textured multimedia space out of pixels and sound bytes makes Super Vision thoroughly compelling.
In the plugged-in age, many of us have learned to finely tune our ability to multi-task. How many of us come home, turn on the evening news, start up the computer, check email, open a browser to look at movie times, start dinner microwaving and make a quick call on the cell phone — all in the space of five minutes? I was astonished — and not a little discomfited — to realize that even as I watched Mr. Shah being quizzed by passport control, my eyes were darting about trying to absorb the screen projections of his itineraries, names of his family members, his prescriptions. Still, director Marianne Weems and her collaborators — including the masterful lighting designer Jennifer Tipton — construct Super Vision carefully and never allow it to dwell on the feelings of information overload per se. Their focus is on how identity is shaped — whether it is consciously shaped and whether we can control that process — given the all-encompassing technology that feeds into cyberspace.
Virtual reality is no longer just for the cyberpunk nihilists and “console cowboys” of William Gibson. All of us now reside in the datasphere. The question is who are we when we’re there?
Super Vision runs August 17 – 19, 2006 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. TICKETS: $23-$30, call 415-978-ARTS