The Internet’s Unrestrained Id

Annie Dorsen’s “The Great Outdoors” stars an algorithm.

By Diya Gupta

In an essay on “Algorithmic Theater,” Annie Dorsen quotes Kevin Slavin, who defines ‘algorithm,’ maybe too succinctly, as “a series of concrete mathematical steps that allow computers to decide stuff.” These mathematical operations serve as one of the primary principles behind Artificial Intelligence, which models itself around the way our own reasoning functions. Algorithms are not human, but for Dorsen, they are “human-ish.”

Annie Dorsen’s “The Great Outdoors” / photo: © Julieta Cervantes, courtesy of Live Arts Bard

That’s the basic premise of her recent immersive performance piece, The Great Outdoors, which was staged in a black, inflatable makeshift planetarium propped up in an empty unlit theater at Florence Gould Hall.

Audiences stumbled into the darkness of the engorged dome one by one by way of a slightly ominous air lock. As we found tight spaces to sit or lie down and gaze up at the glitchy night sky projected above us, a computer sifted through incalculable anonymous comments from Reddit and 4chan to represent what Dorsen calls the unrestrained “id of the internet.” Kaija Matiss served as its voice and body. Sitting cross-legged against the side of the planetarium, Matiss was illuminated, God-like, by a laptop from below. She reminded me of a kid on a camping trip with a torch under her chin and the black rectangular prism that held the projection apparatus glowed like a bonfire in the middle of our little assembly.

The Great Outdoors presented a beguiling paradox: it thrust strangers into sweaty, intimate, IRL proximity by means of a disembodied, algorithm-driven process. And by doing so, it turned the concept of performance on its head. Theater, music, dance and other typically live genres place humans at the center. And while the comments being culled and read out in The Great Outdoors were in fact human creations, they were curated by a distinctly un-human entity. Matiss was not the star, she was a vessel. The decision-maker — the protagonist — was the algorithm.

“Yes.” “No.” “No.” “No.” “Yes.” These were the fist words it bid Matiss to utter — simple, meaningless affirmations and negations. The concavity above us began as a tranquil night sky punctured with stars, its lower portion depicting the rooftops of suburban homes.

The rooftops disappeared as we began our ascent into the cosmos. The algorithmically selected comments grew progressively longer, denser and more coherent as the performance went on. Words turned into sentences, sentences became paragraphs. We heard about how the right kind of lighting can really change the way we photograph, about how Trump is great and Trump is evil, about military moustaches possibly coming back into fashion, about Girl Scout traditions, about the many ways in which one could successfully “collapse into a puddle of pink cum,” about the long flowing manes of horses and, in the aggregate, about the endless jumble of thoughts, desires and emotions that preoccupy all these people clicking away at their keyboards. Matiss vocalized these algorithmically generated comments with only the slightest inflections, neither wholly robotic nor wholly human.

About two-thirds into the show, Matiss began to drown in the grandiosity of the spectacle. The acceleration of the vocals, the reeling visuals, and the ferocity of the music swelled together until striking intensity crossed the line into jarring cacophony. The images on the domed screen were rushing past us and shifting form, becoming mangled and warped in the process. For a good five minutes the Milky Way spiralled with dizzying speed, and I was forced to sit up and close my eyes to force the nausea away. When I opened them, I saw that I wasn’t the only one. Matiss’s speech became almost unintelligible. The sound score– which began as a threateningly low-pitched, dense, ambient drone — became frantic.

After 15 minutes of this sensory hammering, the spoken comments began to slow down to a comprehensible pace. The algorithm became less cohesive, more disjointed, till it finally exhausted itself.

Matiss recited the final few posts:

“Comma.” “Ellipses.” “Parenthesis.” “Zero. Zero. Zero.”

The music calmed and humanity was ironed out to Internet-friendly ones and zeros again. A distant white speck emerged in the darkness. It was the moon, languidly approaching us.

And then it was over. We were shrouded in black again.

The Great Outdoors left me feeling uneasy, which makes sense considering the discomfiting issues it raises. Some of that discomfort came from the subject matter of the culled comments. They often forayed into territory that was graphic or violent, and always strange. As they evolved, I thought of all the real people clicking away at their keyboards — desires and thoughts laid bare for the world to see, their faces and identities protected by a glowing screen. Were these people projecting alter-egos? Were they just having a bit of fun? Were they hoping to find a voice that echoed their own emotions?

In the grand narrative of The Great Outdoors, none of those questions matter. Who, in the unimaginable vastness of the universe hears the cries of an anonymous human posting on 4chan? And in any case, people were never really a part of the performance; the algorithm never considered the individual or their intent while making its selection. Our star performer isn’t alive or conscious. It doesn’t have a brain and it doesn’t have a body, which means that it cannot die. The beauty and profound unease of The Great Outdoors comes from knowing that it will outlive all of us through its algorithmically conceived script, online comments suspended forever in the immortal limbo of computational code.