“Just like Ariel [from ‘The Little Mermaid’], we all wanna be where the people are,” artist Alexis Powell says. She’s talking about connectivity—especially between artists, musicians and working creatives in the digital age. “Big tech knows that and uses it to its advantage.”
“I love the internet,” Candace B. Thompson adds. “I was an early smart-phone adopter, and I use Instagram constantly in my work as an artist—even though I can’t stand what Facebook has become. [At the moment,] it is the closest thing we have to a commons for sharing information and building community while also working several jobs and trying to sleep.”
Powell and Thompson traverse modern-day conundrums of a digitally dependent world in “OK GURGLE,” a multimedia, sound and music production, as part of the Cucalorus Stage block. The production is slated for two shows at Whiskey Tango Foxtrot this weekend. Using their own personal data, as well as speech-to-text transcriptions, “accidental” Google recordings and the like, Powell and Thompson explore digital codependency and consensual surveillance by marrying original songs with visuals and audience engagement.
“OK GURGLE” has been in development for two years and only performed twice so far. Powell and Thompson workshopped the production and added new elements to create the latest iteration, which serves as their Cucalorus debut.
“We’re also starting to incorporate a post-show ‘aftercare’ into the evening,” Thompson says, “where we’ll talk with the audience about the issues that arise in the piece, and offer them some hands-on tools for regaining agency over their data.”
Audience collaboration is at the heart of “OK, Gurgle”—in its message and in its progression. “We really want people to both have feelings about the issues we are drawing awareness to (surveillance capitalism, personal data collection) and our general complicity to these situations while also offering tools for taking some control back in relation to them,” Powell tells.
Though it’s Thompson and Powell’s first time at Cucalorus, both are seasoned artists. Thompson has been a part of food justice and ecology projects, like The Collaborative Urban Resilience Banquet (C.U.R.B.) and can be seen on Instagram @the_c_u_r_b. Powell also has a self-therapeutic Instagram video series @alexis_growl. The artists have taken the time to share more on the impetus for “OK GURGLE” and how Cucalorus audiences can connect (or disconnect) with the show.
encore (e): How has “OK GURGLE” changed over time, based on new happenings and breaking news when it comes to internet privacy, data collection, etc?
Candace B. Thompson (CBT): Lex and I basically send each other texts every day with news articles about how some such company just had a massive database leak or how Facebook did some new nefarious thing, but the larger ideas remain consistent across time (for now, at least).
Alexis Powell (AP): It’s actually impossible to incorporate this news at the pace in which it’s being released.
CBT: While our piece is about data itself, it’s really more an exploration of emotional reasons and why we reach for these devices—how they have been engineered to make it as easy (professionally, technically and emotionally) for us to do so.
AP: Exactly—why are we always choosing to “accept” the terms of service of our apps and devices without ever reading the fine print of what that means? Have we become so addicted to our phones we no longer care about our data privacy, or has big tech become so attuned to our “needs” and vulnerabilities we are now in a totally codependent relationship? How do we get out of this relationship? Do we want to?
CBT: That’s where we think the real work has to be done: helping us all uncouple from the compulsion engineered into this technology, and asking these companies to be held accountable for the ways in which they intentionally manipulate us.
e: Tell us more about the original music elements of the show. Were they specifically written for “OK, Gurgle,” or did they just happen to fit?
CBT: Lex is an amazing musician and with this project (and others we’ve done) the songs emerge from the data we gather. We do some Googling and screenshotting, and she just goes off and comes back with something, and I’m like, “Cool!” These songs are original for this piece and are literally copy-pulled from spam emails, the Google privacy terms and conditions, Google searches results, etc.
AP: Yeah, this is my favorite way to compose. I guess this is our performance company’s own method of “data collection”—we gather up a ton of research on the topics that make us curious, confused, scared, etc. and then turn them over musically and theatrically until they can be examined in a new light. For me, this kind of arts-based research and exploration through various kinds of embodiment helps me grapple with topics overwhelming to my brain.
Candace is also an amazing musician, by the way.
e: Can you give us an example of one of the songs and visuals you chose to pair with it?
CBT: One of the newer songs we have is where Lex has created a little bop for the terms and conditions we all agree to. It’s kind of amazing to hear the lyrics because you’ll think we’re being reductive or pithy, but it’s literally just a straight copy/paste from their legal. For this iteration (graphics are always in flux), we’ve just screenshot that language in order for the audience to see that we’re not making this shit up!
e: Which aspect(s) of the performance do you think most visibly impact audiences?
AP: We intend to ask our Cucalorus audiences this for sure! I think, in general, it is the ways in which folks see themselves and their behaviors mirrored back to them.
CBT: We’re in it (and running every cue in real time) so it’s hard to say because it’s a bit of a whirlwind for us. When we’ve performed it before, we’ve had lots of different responses. I think it depends on the individual’s age and fluency with these tools. It’s our hope most people see something in here that reflects back to them a digital habit they have; though, we hope to keep expanding from here forward and represent the broader implications these tools have for people with less privilege.
Digital space—like real space—is more fraught for black, indigenous, people of color (BIPOC), LGBTQIA+, women, poor people, immigrants and children than it is for the Mark Zuckerbergs, Tim Cooks and Sergei Brins of the world. People need to know, even if a certain tool doesn’t hurt them personally, its widespread adoption can have real-world impacts on other more marginalized groups. In my honest opinion, we need to think collectively about internet safety and make sure the least amongst us are also protected.
e: There’s mention of “accidental” Google recordings—what are those?
CBT: So one of the big sparks for this project was that in the days after the 2016 election I made a satirical project for one of my grad school art classes that was a response to the Trump administration’s proposal of a Muslim registry. I have rad Muslim friends and wasn’t down with that crap, so I created the The National White Man Registry and posted it on Facebook as a sort of Swiftian response to the idea, and in about three days it went viral and I got a very hard and fast lesson in internet security. Apparently there’s a lot of white men without a sense of humor, and so I (like lots of folks these days) started getting death threats, etc … ask anyone who’s been through it and they’ll tell you it’s not fun.
I had several friends who scrambled to help me with the difficult task of cleaning up my digital footprint, and in that moment it hit home just how vulnerable many of us are in digital space, and what the implications are, both personally and politically. At some point in that process my friend Annie showed me where google had been keeping a database of times when my phone thought I had said “OK GOOGLE” and therefore recorded what I had said. Now, I have never used the voice activation tools on my phone, so it was interesting to see all these unintentional recordings— me on my way to a protest, me in class, me in intimate conversations—- that were presumably sitting on a server somewhere without my consent. It also clued me in to the fact that in every recording you could hear when the device thought I had said “OK GOOGLE”—which of course means that these devices were recording me 24/7. Of course then you ask: Where is this info going? How long does it stay there? Who can it be used by? Under what terms?
So we’ve brought that idea into this work. In the main we’re just trying to help people remember that these are tools, and like all tools there needs to be better legislation, awareness, and intention around how/when/why/who uses them.
e: You also talk about complacency—why do you think that exists?
CBT: I could be real glib and just say “because capitalism,” but I also think there’s nuance here. I want to be clear: I think the internet is an amazing and beautiful thing. It is humans doing their best attempt at mimicking the mycelial network, and fungi seem to know that collaborating and sharing resources across species and taxa is in everyone’s best interest. We can do that, too, and I think it is not inconceivable to have a digital culture that is equitable, responsible, mutualistic, transparent and ecologically sustainable. Without the internet I would be FAR more ignorant of so many global issues. Hell, my entire education was basically provided by youtube. BUT the corporations who design these tools are not being held accountable for the implications of what they create. From planned obsolescence to Cambridge Analytica to facial recognition software that returns more false-positives on People of Color than white men, there’s just a lot of work that needs to be done.
I think on the user side it is architectured to be super easy (and compulsory) for us to just ‘agree to continue’ rather than actually understanding the terms we’re agreeing to. We have to learn to say no more, and that will mean being ok with a little inconvenience from time to time. On the corporate side, I think these industries are often racing to release The Next Big Thing so they can make investors and themselves rich ASAP. In that process, no one is required to take the time to think through the implications of what these tools could do unintentionally. Or, as we’ve seen recently with Facebook, when they DO learn what’s happening they just cover it up because they don’t want to lose profit share. Not cool. All parties need to slow down because human lives are (quite literally) at stake.
AP: We clearly have a lot to say/feel/yet to research about this very topic. I also happen to be a creative arts therapist and am researching the ways in which our attachment styles (how we feel secure or insecure inside of relationships based on our earliest ones) impact our impulse to “connect” via social media, our need to feel “seen”, our need to express ourselves and feel joined in these expressions, as well as the ways we are doing this without mindfulness and then easily lured into comparison shame and, ultimately, apps and ads for stuff we absolutely don’t need to buy. When we are feeling lonely, overwhelmed or lost IRL, social media can be a place of refuge and retreat, or it can also add to the feelings of isolation and inadequacy. That’s powerful. We need to be careful how we use these devices and, more importantly, how they use us in light of that.
encore (e): How “connected” are you to your own devices and internet?
CBT: So we all need to remember: these companies have a lot of power, but they only have it because we give it to them. We have agency here and can demand what is right. It also means we need legislators who actually understand what these tools do AND who are genuinely interested in protecting our rights and working with the groups that understand this stuff well. There are so many good groups doing this work: Electronic Frontier Foundation, the World Wide Web Consortium, Crash Override, Access Now, etc … and these groups are fighting for our rights and should be household names. They need our support.
AP: I am a person who has to really be mindful about my interaction with social media. I have had to learn to put myself on social media rest at times in order to center on my own experiences, needs, goals and relationships in the here-and-now – not what I think these should be according to an “audience”/”stage” of friends and strangers. Like, what would feel good to do or create if no one ever saw it, commented on it, or liked it? and can I do that more? Though, I definitely sometimes use instagram therapeutically by making dumb character videos, or by checking in on my favorite account @round.boys in hard times (go look now, you won’t be sorry), it’s also really, really important to take breaks from the screens and look my favorite people in their IRL eyeballs.
e: What do independent festivals like Cucalorus offer communities and artists in music, film and beyond?
CBT: Ya know, one of the awesome things about the web is that we can now know about the cool work happening all over the globe. I remember being in high school in Raleigh and my only exposure to art from outside of the triangle was when, like, the touring production of “Cats!” came to town … and I’m sorry … “Cats!” is cool and all … but … it ain’t everything.
So creating spaces where emerging artists can come together with a new audience is so crucial. And there’s also something really important about the embodied presence of artists and filmmakers, dancers and theatre practitioners being in real space together, sharing ideas, and getting to hang out in a casual way. And for communities to be able to see this work and respond in the moment is also really important. While we’re making a show about the digital world, we’re also two artists who are very cognizant that what live events can do that recorded digital media can’t is create the conditions for a felt experience that sparks a conversation in real time. It’s our goal to get this piece to a point where that happens [insert fingers crossed emoji].