Would you let a panel of strangers choose your outfit in the morning? Or perhaps select your date for the evening? How about letting them make the call on whether to keep or delete your Facebook friends based on a one minute pitch? Depending on your viewpoint, it’s either a harmless social experiment, a rather useful administrative tool, or an intolerable invasion of privacy. Performance maker Brian Lobel did exactly that, offering up his Facebook friendships to a jury of audience members, until, after 800 emails (“a lot of happy emails, some engaged emails, very angry emails…”) 64 retaliatory deletions and 2,000 comments on the live stream of the installation, he tells me, half-laughing, “I realised I couldn’t do that to my friends any more!”, and Purge the stage show was born.
Lobel, an American-born performance maker and also a senior lecturer at the University of Chichester, describes Purge, the show, as “a reflective talk for an audience on what that process was for me, and giving them the a chance to talk about their own experience with ‘deleting’ and ‘adding’, and what this all might actually mean..”. It’s a fascinating topic, and yet, we agree, one that has not been subject to enough interrogation. When an Italian performer performed her own initial Purge (Lobel is keen for his work to “live on after [him], to find new contexts..”) he recalls a German critic declaring disgustedly, “Urgh! Art about Facebook…” He laughs and then asserts, “See, my response to that is… yes! It’s art about the things that we surround ourselves with. Because Facebook is the place where I learn the most about politics, about fads, about my family! It’s not a space that’s unworthy of consideration.” He cites Chris Thorpe and Hannah Jane Walker’s I Wish I was Lonely as a work with similar concerns, a prompt to really “look at these objects that we have around as all the time, because we do completely dismiss them.”
Social media in all its forms is, of course, now such an ubiquitous presence in our lives that it seems necessary for artists to begin properly considering its significance. How and why, I ask, did Lobel’s own response to it come about? “Purge began by discovering my first boyfriend had deleted me from Friendster (a pre-facebook social networking site) but I only found out that he had once deleted me after he died. I was very upset to learn that, even though we were best friends in real life… so why should [that deletion] have mattered? That is what frames the show, the consideration of what these connections mean – for me and the audience that’s there.”
I take the opportunity to ask him about the much-discussed distinction or overlap between theatre and performance art – where might Purge fall on that spectrum? He is keen to clarify, “I consider myself primarily a performance-maker, but I am very interested in narrative structure and other theatrical elements – because I love telling a story, a story that has guides an audience along with it. At the same time, there’s no ‘suspension of disbelief’, and I call my work just ‘performance’ – yes, part of that may well be wanting to escape that misconception about ‘art’, because for me, it’s always about performance. I’m performing in front of you all the time – when I put on clothes in the morning and I say certain things – so my work is no different to that.”
“I’ve always had a problem with people thinking that my work is not intense enough in the sense that much of performance art is very ‘hardcore’ in its approach to the body, but, although I don’t bleed, I don’t physically hurt myself – this is a project that two years on I still have lasting effects from… I have genuinely lost friends through Purge.” If Purge has underlined anything, then, might it be that social media isn’t just a strange and distanced dislocation of usual social interactions, but an entire functioning social sphere in itself, crossing over to ‘reality’ without hesitation? “It’s almost immature to suggest there’s a difference between the ‘real’ and the ‘digital’ anymore,” Lobel agrees.
Has Purge shaped Lobel into either a champion or a critic of the social networks it investigates?“I think I have a very ambiguous and complex relationship with social media, so I certainly don’t believe in purists one way or another. What I want to do is deepen our relationship with social media. We’re really babies in this world of social technology – only 13 years into understanding digital social media – societally, we still think that countries are new if they’re under 20 or religions are new if they’re under 800 years old – so what does that mean for our response to and relationship with social media?”
I ask Lobel if, whilst Purge comes from an incredibly personal place, it is his intention to extend it into a tool for wider consideration? He is hesitant to define Purge so succinctly: “The show is ever-changing, even if my thinking doesn’t so much – I never came in with a particular agenda, it was more of a research project for me,” and he’s quick to emphasise that he doesn’t intend to make overarching, declarative statements. “It’s always been important to me to only talk about myself – I can’t talk about other people. If the work is good, then it will allow other people to come and access it. For me, it is about opening up a space for dialogue. At the beginning of the show I ask the audience to shout out who they would delete and they call out ‘my brother! My ex! Racists! Casual homophobes!’ and we talk about that. I like to create that space and then I like to return to my story, the story that I can tell.” An audience can expect to be something far more than simply spectators of Purge, then. “I want you to be an active participant, because this is not a movie! I want you to be active and engaged with the work. I want to create a safe space for audiences to actually think about difficult, and often very sad, things – people will end up talking about really personal stories in front of a large number of people. What I always want to be suggesting is, ‘you’re very welcome, here, to be frail – like I am’.”
The original impetus for Purge, Lobel emphasises, was personal, and it remains a deeply personal project, but he considers, “I suppose now it’s a show much more about sharing”. His hopes for an audience are touchingly and laudably simple: “I would like that when audience members come home from the show and turn on their computer, when they leave the show and they turn their phone back on, they’ll think about it a little more deeply – think about things with a little more of a pause, to reconsider, together, how we live our everyday life.”
Brian Lobel’s Purge was at JCC London on 2 November and will be at Canada Water Culture Space on 8 November. For more information and tickets please see Brian Lobel’s website.
Photo (c) Aaron Reeves.