No Danger From Stranger

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When it comes to digital life, we are often too suspicious of impending conflict to bother interacting with strangers. Could the field of performance art offer up some unexpectedly useful insight?

A woman wearing a long, dramatic red dress and dark brown hair sits across from a woman in everyday clothes. Only a table separates them. In the distance, a crowd of blurred onlookers observe these two women as they stare at each other. Everyone is in an art gallery.
Image credit: Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present (2010). Courtesy of Marina Abramovic and Sean Kelly Gallery, NY.

(Process Post No. 1 + Online Development No. 1)

There can be no doubt about it: These days, blatant examples of today’s political polarization are simply unavoidable once we’ve logged online––although the bleed between digital and online discourse may be more of a chicken-egg situation than we care to admit.

But if the past couple decades of the internet have truly been, as some have loftily declared it, the new “Wild West” then we are far beyond that initial pastoral fantasy, whose promise of limitless horizons awaiting human ingenuity convinced us all to entwine our own lives with the greater project of the “World Wide Web”. Sure, for a while things were good: We went from horseback to train (dial-up to high speed); we built homesteads (social media accounts) that grew into towns (subthreads and fandoms); we marvelled at all that this new, digital life had to offer.

These days, however, we find ourselves lost, grimy, and constantly prepared for a shootout. Though I wouldn’t go so far as to truly compare the two, it would seem that the promise of the internet fell into some of the same traps as that colonialist-settler dream: We over-estimated ourselves; we eagerly pursued that initial excitement, ignoring that nothing can stay so idyllic; we didn’t think it all-the-way through.

Because there certainly is a lot of thinking to be done about the state of internet culture today and, in retrospect, we should have seen this coming.

In a way, we have turned to a mentality of “stranger danger”. Tension is everywhere, and we sense it at the family dinner table as much the YouTube comment section. Many of us feel so stunned by this abstracted fear of impending attack that we have abandoned our old optimism about the collective project that was to be digitized life. While there are certainly countless experiences of online criticism and harassment which all warrant appropriate concern, most would also agree that living in this state of disappointment, tepidness, and self-censorship is not what we wanted for ourselves.

Yes, we find ourselves in the midst of a reckoning with both our own online behaviour as well as that of others. But I wonder, where can we go from here?

(This guiding question is broad enough that I will have to continually digest the situation further under the tag of “Internet Culture”.)


In part, this post is my response to the two readings from this past week. Both “How to Talk to Strangers” and How I Got My Attention Back have influenced my perspective on the state of the internet today. Rather than talk about my own encounters with strangers this week (fairly uneventful) I thought I would pull from the field of visual art for some insight into stranger anxiety.

When it comes to internet audiences, we tend to speak in a false binary without really realizing it: There is the mythic “public” (supposedly a rapt collection of followers, keen to engage in valuable discourse) and the uglier, undesirable of “strangers online” (ready to troll at every opportunity). In my opinion, the reality tends to be somewhere in between.

Rather than speak from my own experience of this, let’s turn to the practice from acclaimed performance artist Marina Abramovic. Over the past several decades, Abramovic has put herself in any number of vulnerable positions in front of people she has never met before. There is plenty to explore in her work but, for our purposes, we will look at two examples.

Abramovic is known for her incredible stamina and she first garnered respect for her fearless performances in the 1970s and ’80s. Arguably the best known known work is ‘Rhythm 0’. In this six hour performance, she surrenders her passive body to the whims of audience-goers and the results were shocking. This is because she laid out a wide array of 72 items, ranging from perfume and honey to prickly roses, scissors, and even a loaded gun; all of these items carry an array of potentiality of choice, especially when Abramovic states that “I am the object. During this period I take full responsibility [for anything that is done to me].”

The artist stands in a white room with string tying a note around her waist. Three figures surround her, one of them has an unidentifiable object next to the artist's face.
Details from the initial stages of the performance work.

As you can imagine, the reactions and actions were wide-ranging. Some viewers were reported as initially tame, such as merely turning her body around, while others began to escalate the violations towards her body. Amongst other things, her skin was sliced, her clothes were removed, and her body was sexually assaulted (see below). Unfortunately, this was not the worst of it.

A young woman holds up a framed mirror marked with non-English words. Her chest is bare and a metal chain sits between her exposed breasts. She is wearing a hat and a tear rolls down her face, exposing the upset she feels despite her otherwise stoic expression.
Watch the video from the Marina Abramovic Institute here.

Things really came to a climax when one “viewer” (now implicit, but without consequence) pointed the gun at her head and placed her finger on the trigger until someone else yanked it away and the crowd burst into disagreement. Meanwhile, despite being the centre of the conflict, Abramovic had to lay there passively. Understandably, when the artist was later able to articulate her perspective, she famously remarked, “If you leave it up to the audience, they can kill you.”

While this pseudo-experiment was necessarily provocative, her latest (and arguably greatest) performance is far more understated. Still, I would argue that it is equally powerful and even more fitting for the internet age. (After all, part of the reason the online world feels so volatile and risky is because it still doesn’t feel quite like “real life”.)

Titled “The Artist Is Present” (2010), the work essentially involves her sitting in the same gallery room for over three months at a pace of eight hours a day, just to look the audience (strangers) in the eye. Perhaps surprisingly, and despite some criticism, the lines were long and by the end over 1,500 people were able to sit in the chair opposite the artist––and that number impressive number obviously excludes the countless thousands of other people who showed up just to witness what boils down to basic human interaction. While no words were exchanged, many of these museum-goers were moved to the point of tears (see below and, if you’re curious, feel free to watch the documentary).

Thumbnails of a variety of faces looking offscreen with a variety of expressions, from contemplative to happy to crying.
Google results showing some of the faces (I recognize a few) reacting to this moment of unexpected intimacy, all from taking the time to recognize the existence of another through nothing more than a prolonged look in the eye.

At the end of the day, most people desperately yearn for a sense of worth and belonging. It would seem that despite the grim conclusions of suppressed urges and angers that we learned about from Rhythm 0, this artwork seems to aim to reassure us. With poetic subtlety, this later work reveals the lonely underbelly that is so central to human pain. The Artist Is Present exposes that there is a softness to humanity, to strangers, that is quickly overlooked by our pessimistic eyes. At the end of the day, most people are simply yearning for a sense of worth and belonging.

Overall, in my view, the result of these artworks’ mix of intimacy and anonymity parallels some of the joys and risks that make the internet realm so irresistibly appealing. Additionally, both of the works touch on the human drive for opportunity and recognition. These are all factors that I feel become oversimplified in our quest to make sense of this new cyberspace, rife with its highs and lows.

Again, I will continue my analysis of these ideas in future posts, especially having had a look at the topics for upcoming lectures. But for now, I encourage you to meditate on these artworks: Would you agree that they parallel internet culture in some way? If yes, then how so? If not, what makes these art-instances and the online environment notably different, in your opinion? If you like, please leave a comment down below because I am curious to hear other perspectives on this.

For now, though, my point is this: Though the internet era has brought about a newfound instinctual distrust for the digital stranger-neighbour, it would seem that people are no more dangerous or emotionless than ever before. Human beings have always struggled to get along––we simultaneously need and hate each other––and that is nothing new. Instead, the real issue is moreso that cyberspace amplifies and exacerbates some of the innate social struggles that we already face. I believe that we need to look beyond oversimplification and vilification because the complex troubles of the internet demand nuanced solutions.

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