Ubiquity and fungibility: online memes trade in both, alluring in their sheer number and dizzying in their rate of circulation and disposal. Ryan McNamara’s Performa 13 commission, MEÆ?M: A Story Ballet About the Internet (Nov. 8-12 at New York’s Connelly Theater), delivered a fantastical array of choreography culled from YouTube videos, set to a throbbing, addictive soundtrack of strange bedfellows such as Aaliyah, Stevie Nicks, Drake, Steely Dan, David Bowie and the Supremes.
The hour-long show opened with a trio of undulating bodies onstage. The audience’s captivation with their controlled ripples of limbs and torsos—based on a clip of Tina Turner’s wild thrashings, which were slowed to a syrupy, unrecognizable pace—was soon diverted by hushed commotion in the back row of seats. Two spectators (still in their chairs) were pulled on stage by production assistants armed with specially manufactured dollies. Soon, the rest of the audience met the same fate, as a swarm clad in maroon sweatshirts and gray sweatpants appeared and began abducting the crowd, moving them onto the stage, turning them away from it, and taking them into other rooms altogether. Literally swept away, the audience was periodically reshuffled for the duration of the performance, clustered around solo performers or small groups scattered throughout the theater space. The possibility of any “best seat in the house” was exchanged for a series of diffuse vantage points.
If part of dance’s appeal lies in the visual pleasure of watching bodies at work, the uniform appearance of the assistants (ominously credited as “people movers” in the program) was a reminder that ubiquity and fungibility are also the nefarious conditions of labor under capital. The proximity of their physical exertion to that of the dexterous and mesmerizing dancers—both equally arduous—warrants consideration on the politics of sweat equity.
Mirroring the bewilderingly vast opportunities for stimulation on the web, the performance’s architecture had dancers vying for audience attention. Each change of position gave unprecedented immediacy to one part of the performance while obscuring the rest. Amidst frustration and titillation, the dominant reaction seemed to be a fear of missing out (FOMO in internet parlance), as necks craned in order to gain back the mastery of vision promised by a more traditional proscenium set-up that, under the circumstances, was impossible to recreate.
While effective in replicating the rhizomic, inexhaustible offerings of the internet, McNamara’s staging is most productive as a reminder that the happenstances of online discovery are more often the product of carefully calculated algorithms and precisely orchestrated pathways. Indeed, though our online lives and their efflorescent content are often discussed in terms of “curation” (to much art-world chagrin), the Internet is also a kind of choreography, both of virtual movement (page views and clicks) and motion of the physical kind: contorting our bodies to snap the perfect selfie, tailoring our retinae to the unceasing stimulation of endless scroll, or disciplining our fingers to habitually seek out our smartphones. Simply put, technologies train the body. The urgency of this idea—grounded in the experimentation of the historical avant-garde and the writing of Walter Benjamin—feels, in McNamara’s hands, both pressing and irreverent.
What does it mean to make a ballet about the internet? Certainly, one must confront sedimented oppositions of the virtual and immaterial, on the one hand, and presence and embodiment on the other. In MEÆ?M, these exhausted binaries are displaced by the choreography of control, as abstractions of data were applied to the complex distribution of physical bodies in space. These dynamics of power and exchange are pervasive in McNamara’s earlier work. Make Ryan A Dancer (2010), at MoMA PS1, had the artist learning physical discipline via dance lessons at the museum, while Still (2012), at Elizabeth Dee Gallery, demanded the audience participate in order to enter the show.
Contra the blatantly punitive relations between performer and audience in 1960s experimental theater or more recent immersive theater spectacles—which equate “liberation” with audience mobility—McNamara mines instead the nuances of permissiveness and interdiction. Ballet’s movements, after all, developed out of a rigorous system of courtly manners. The internet, as media theorist Alexander Galloway has argued, is structured by another kind of etiquette, what he terms “protocol.” Though MEÆ?M denied a coherent and total view of all its parts, one theatergoer effectively “hacked” the performance with the most familiar of visual technologies: a mirror.