Low Lives at Little Berlin – screenings, live and via the internet

The international performance art festival Low Lives — broadcast via the internet and simultaneously projected at multiple venues throughout the world –took place in Philadelphia at Little Berlin in collaboration with Mascher Space over two days, April 27 and 28, with screenings and one, in-the-flesh performance. Low Lives was an official part of Philly Tech Week.

Low Lives
Marcel Williams Foster, Britney Hines, and Dustan Matungwa, Jane Goodall Speaks with a Native About Nature, live streamed performance, 2012. Photo: Kelani Nichole.

At the Friday night extravaganza, which I missed, theater artists Marcel Williams Foster and Britney Hines transformed Little Berlin into a “cyber-jungle” of video games, toy monkeys, and tarot readings to set the stage for their five-minute contribution to Low Lives. “Jane Goodall Speaks with a Native About Nature” is based on Foster’s experience as a scientific researcher at the Jane Goodall Institute in Tanzania, often critiqued for its colonialist values. Apparently, Foster, in full drag as British chimpanzee expert Jane, conversed with Hines (playing feminist scholar Donna Haraway) and, via Skype, Dr. Dustan Matungwa, a Tanzanian researcher disturbed by Goodall’s appropriation of the local wildlife. Foster’s show, by the way, was in Artblog’s list of  the “10 Best Bets for the 2010 Fringe Festival” back in 2010.

Marcel Williams Foster, Britney Hines, and Dustan Matungwa, Jane Goodall Speaks with a Native About Nature, live streamed performance, 2012

I attended Saturday’s low-key event, running from 3-6pm. There were about ten of us at Little Berlin, plus collective member Kelani Nichole’s super cute black and white dog, Ina. The set-up was simple: a MacBook connected to a CLEAR wifi hotspot on a wooden table; a projector balanced atop a tall speaker; a few blue plastic cups of beer. The night before, Nichole explained, was much heavier on the tech, with cables, cameras, and A/V equipment everywhere.

Saturday’s performances streamed from the internet back-to-back with no clues as to context apart from black and white PowerPoint slides showing each work’s title and location. It was an eclectic mix – like the web in general – seemingly with no curatorial input or quality control. I watched a girl repeatedly diving into a pool, a woman smearing her face with butter, a bearded man playing country music on a banjo, and four dudes dressed in bright red marching around an ice rink.

Some performances commented directly on the nature of the internet as a medium. New York based artist Ursula Endlicher directed “The Old Internet Slideshow” (embedded above), a humorous trip back to the 1990s when the web, announced a computerized voice, was a “shallow repository of dirty pictures, inaccurate rumors, bad spelling, and worse grammar.” Technical glitches sometimes added to a work’s meaning, for example a broadcast of a dancing group, dressed in cartoonish, shiny paper outfits, was so choppy that it looked just like stop-motion animation. In Houston, Texas, Regina Agu risked using an iPhone to transmit “Damp Earth” (embedded below). While it took a few attempts to get the broadcast going, Agu managed to produce the only outdoor performance that I saw, thanks to mobile technology.


While watching the flickering, often pixellated, projections, Nichole (who collaborated with me on a live-streamed artist talk in January) commented astutely on Low Lives’ many levels of technological mediation. She pointed out that the concept “live” gets stretched and challenged by the fact that we are, with a slight delay, watching a screen capture of Low Lives organizer Jorge Rojas’s desktop, as he views and organizes the original broadcasts at home. Occasionally, we could hear him talking via Skype with one of the upcoming performers. In the end, it’s this messiness – the festival’s wholehearted embrace of large-scale, glitchy, web-based madness – that remains after individual acts begin to blur in my memory.

By the way, Monday, May 7, sees the relaunch of Kelani Nichole’s Open Web Studio, a monthly workshop at Little Berlin for creative people needing tech advice on internet-based projects. Several artists will Skype in for this first session, broadcast on USTREAM from 7-9pm. Sessions continue on first Mondays.