Salamanca Arts Centre / HyPe / Miss Despoina’s Hackspace
Peacock Theatre, 4-6 August
Nancy Mauro-Flude sits at a laptop at a desk cluttered with papers, facing away from us; we’re watching over her shoulder, snooping as she fiddles around in chatrooms and semifunctional programs: playgrounds of code. The theatre’s dominated by the huge projection of the screen across the back wall, making the human figure on stage look almost incidental. The interface is dressed up in retro DOS style, the way someone much trendier than you wears hand-picked, op-shop-wrinkled 1940s twin sets.
When we first walk in, she’s navigating some kind of ASCII-based Star Wars reenactment. And then she begins some kind of code-based journaling – a ‘to do’ list and a dream diary entry. This is the bit of the show which appeals to me most – there’s a mike somewhere on the table and that inimitable noise of computer keys eerily fills the space as we hang on every blinking-green-cursor-heralded word. We’re dropped in the middle of this ‘world’ (whatever it is) without much context, and we’re not really sure of our role in it. How ‘performative’ is she? How much is she just doing what she does, and not particularly caring what we think? It’s a strange hybrid; unintelligible and yet weirdly addictive. The sounds of the tapping, the back of her head in occasional movement, the irregular and captivating rhythms as she pauses, rewrites, backspaces, pauses, writes, rewrites – each editorial change leaving no physical trace but contributing as much to what we read as does the final set of words. Sometimes she corrects spelling mistakes and sometimes she ignores them: a kind of screw you tone as a reminder that we’re intruding into her intimate relationship with her computer.
Then she’s in chatrooms – multiple ones, flipping between them faster than we can actually see; some peopled by people, and some by bots. Hard to say which conversations were more interesting. And then she’s writing requests to some kind of electronic concordance/collocation program – in response it spits out lists of word pairs from A Room of One’s Own, Hamlet, and others. All these things are in her control, not ours, and it’s frustrating. After a while I refuse to start reading them, because I know in a second she’ll scroll down at double speed, or change the page all together. Is this what she wants? To demonstrate how easily the computer dominates us instead of vice versa?
I haven’t a clue, really, what the text (the code, the conversations, the extracts) means half the time – but that fits the sense of voyeurism, as if you’re walking past a window at dusk when you realise that through the gauzy curtains and half-lit, you can see two people in the middle of something, and even though you’re not sure what it is (lovemaking? an argument? interior decorating?), you stand there watching, feeling a little guilty and a little titillated.
It did strike me in a similar way to the dance improvisation work I saw earlier this year: what difference does our presence as an audience make? Strangely – in her program notes Mauro-Flude talks about getting behind the ‘user-friendly facades’ of computers – the stripped-back code landscape is alienating and distancing. The novelty of the voyeurism wears off after a while, but luckily the performance is short, leaving us wondering what to make of a relationship between human and machine – succeeding at what I think were some of her goals.