This review of Ann Hirsch’s debut play ‘Playground’ was published in Art Monthly issue 379, 2014
From sociology to critical theory, analysis of the internet and its effects on the behaviour and cognitive processes of computer users has predominantly been written by those old enough to remember a time before the world wide web crept into every corner of our lives like Japanese knotweed up a cracked wall. This generation of commentators, comprising early and late internet adopters, has produced an almost mythical object of fascination and speculation in ‘net natives’, the catch-all term for those young enough to have no experience of pre-internet days. While their alleged lack of interpersonal skills, short attention spans and rewired neural networks are frequently written about, a considered account of net native experience from the keyboard of a net-native is a seldom-seen thing. But, at the UK premier of New York-based video and performance artist Ann Hirsch’s disquieting semi-autobiographical play, audience members were unmistakably pulled into the world of those-who-grew-up-online.
Playground, 2013, is a well-paced, funny and frequently disturbing two-hander. It tells the story of a period of online grooming and subsequent sexual abuse, by proxy, between the predatory Jobe, a slimy 27-year-old ‘hacker’ played to unctuous perfection by Adam Hadas, and Anni, a Bambi-eyed, compassionate girl of twelve handled with extraordinary versatility and confidence by Anne Marie Wolf.
The pair meet in an online forum called ‘the chat’ and develop a relationship through a series of typed exchanges. Jobe gradually shifts from an avuncular, self-appointed system administrator to a manipulative paedophile instructing Anni in coercive sessions of mutual masturbation. This progression from friendship to a kind of pathetic, virtual codependency is convincingly reinforced by Hirsch’s simple but highly effective stage direction. The play opens with Jobe and Anni seated at separate desks, communicating silently through typed keyboard exchanges that are projected for the audience to read. As messaging becomes more intimate, typed text turns to speech and they eventually meet centre stage to embrace, paw each other or argue.
In ‘reality’ the two never make actual physical contact. All of the interaction in Playground is a dramatisation of each character’s chat-room sentences with hugs, kisses and strokes being their internal visualisations of emotional cues and emoticons written in typed text. It is a device that imbues the most naturalistic action with a strange undercurrent of detachment and distance, where a smile is really just a J and laughter reducible to the acronym LOL. The reverse is also true. Reading the projections of Hirsch’s keenly observed and tightly written script – a remarkable feat for a first-time playwright – it becomes obvious that tiny units of contracted webspeak, once internalised, actually explode huge floods of emotion in readers’ minds.
Essentially, Hirsch’s play is a complex psychodrama concerned with thresholds of experience. While Anni’s exposure to sex through the net is the situation around which Playground’s dark coming-of-age tale is structured, raising questions about what happens to pre-teen desires that are denied and suppressed through normative societal frameworks, it also speaks to the evolution of the internet. It frames the web’s own transition from utopic and possibly genderless commons to a domain offering novel and ruthlessly efficient methods for user exploitation – dataveillance, parasite pornography and targeted advertising being prevalent examples. In other words, Playground functions as the story of both Anni and the internet’s loss of innocence. Framing those states of affairs is the overarching threshold between online and offline experience, and in Playground affect is the bridge that connects these two sides. This is why Anni and Jobe’s very real emotional responses offer a retort to digital dualism – the belief that there is a strict real versus unreal separation between offline and online experience akin to René Descartes’ mind-versus-body split. But because the route of affect in Playground is so clearly psychological, with stage action being a dramatisation of the subvocal universe which the characters’ text unlocks, it also foregrounds how different to corporeal interaction online communication is, qualitatively speaking. Here, the separation between concrete and virtual reality remains intact. But is that such a bad thing?
At bottom, digital dualism is a non-issue whose longevity as a critical target stems from the ramifications it has for internet art as an entire field. A dualistic approach casts art online as illegitimate in relation to the plastic field and its immaterial derivatives (Conceptual Art, video art, performance etc), but this way of thinking is completely outmoded and only really maintained by laggardly theorists, collectors and institutions. The real issue for much internet art is not the question of its legitimacy but whether or not it is actually any good. So far irony, flatness and dead-eyed vacuity hold sway in the field. But through Playground Hirsch demonstrates affect is actually the medium’s most powerful tool; it’s how the Cartesian gap is closed.
Because Playground communicated its message in such a direct, almost didactic fashion, at times it crossed over into the territory of cautionary theatre-in-education (TIE) productions for teens, causing some audience members to grumble about its questionable status as performance art – another non-issue. But Hirsch was rightly using those tropes in a clear case of content dictating form. Brechtian distanciation or some other avant-garde strategy of spectator activation might have satisfied a conservative desire for an oblique and austere denial of pleasure, but it would have been entirely inappropriate. In order to hit home the two-step message that affect leads to emotion and emotion leads to action (in ‘real’ life), Hirsch had to utilise the most affective strategies theatre had to offer: trained actors, a black-box theatre, the fourth wall, our suspension of disbelief and the possibility of audience-character identification. In short, Playground was a triumph for Hirsch and a landmark for internet-aware art.
Playground was performed at The George Wood Theatre, Goldsmiths University, London 25 July.