“You girls are missing out on your lives.” That was just one of the comments Rachel Perry Welty and I received during “WTF” (2013), our collaborative performance using cell phones at (con)TEXT, the current Sharon Arts Center exhibition curated by Tim Donovan. A quick description of the piece: we sat next to each other on a bench and for the two-hour duration of the opening reception we texted one another. We did not talk to each other or anyone else. Our “Hello, my name is…” name tags featured our cell phone numbers, not our names. (Side note: I forgot to take my name tag off after the performance and went out for a glass of wine. The bartender couldn’t help but comment: “A lot of women communicate that they’re available, but you’re taking it to a whole new level.”)
This was as much an experiment as a performance. Rachel and I had no idea what would happen. We just wanted to explore our choice to communicate through devices rather than through personal interaction, to comment on the changing nature of conversation, and how we seem willing to forgo face-to-face contact for easier, frictionless e-contact. As Rachel said, “I think we were both curious rather than judgmental – not just is this a bad thing or a good thing, but what does it mean for us as humans in this world?”
Some amazing things happened. Gallery visitors didn’t want to be left out. They saw our phone numbers and started to join in the conversation or they looked over our shoulders to see what we were texting. Some of my blog readers texted in their support (thank you!). One stranger starting flirting with Rachel. I of course was jealous — no one was hitting on me via text. The flirtations continued even after the performance ended. Rachel’s reaction: “A little creepy. A little funny.”
I realized I was actually happy to avoid some of the usual gallery opening small talk. I could see the benefit of hiding behind my phone. It gave me an odd sense of control and relief — “Sorry, can’t talk. Texting.” One of the most daring moments for this good Southern girl was when we purposely kept texting through the executive director’s and the curator’s remarks. Our phones were going off throughout. My husband texted me and said “people think you are so rude.” I was delighted.
After a while, people starting commenting that we were like the guards at Buckingham Palace and they began to try to divert our attention, to stop us texting, but to no avail. We stayed in character throughout.
When I perform with The Moth or The StoryCollider or in my solo show How To Draw a Nekkid Man (formerly titled I Will Be Good) I tell true, personal stories with a narrative arc. Vulnerability and intimacy are the keys to their success. So this was an entirely different kind of performance on many levels. With “WTF”, Rachel and I were purposely not engaging with the audience – no connection through conversation, eye contact, facial expressions, or gesture. We isolated ourselves in the midst of a social gathering, communicating solely through technology.
What was most surprising? Time FLEW by. What was not surprising? At the end of two hours, I was so rattled and exhausted from answering nonstop and fragmented texts that I looked straight at a woman I’ve known for 10 years and couldn’t remember her name. I eventually had to ask someone.
The (con)TEXT exhibition will probably travel to other galleries and museums thanks to Tim Donovan’s expert curatorial ability. No doubt, Rachel and I will be at the openings, texting away.
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