When each click we make online is tracked, recorded and used by companies such as Cambridge Analytica, social media has never seemed so influential or controversial. With 270 million fake Facebook profiles, it is hardly surprising to hear that a new social media user joins the jamboree every 15 seconds. Facebook and Whatsapp alone handle 60 billion messages per day. As a result, social media is a dominant, powerful element of society that, like the technological ether we breathe, is omnipresent yet ungraspable. It shapes not only the way in which we present ourselves and conduct our relationships, but it even informs the decisions we make. The predominance of social media technology, therefore, makes it difficult to conceive of contemporary performance without its presence either as a tool used in the performance, or by advertisers, audience members, or critics in the days before and after the live event. As Michael Billington puts it: ‘For theatre to turn its back on new technology would be as if it had rejected electrically controlled lighting when it came into play in the 1880s’.
User Not Found: Social Media Technologies in Immersive Performance is a research project based at the University of Reading that asks how social media is reshaping our experience of loss and bereavement. Dante or Die (theatre company) and Marmelo Digital (technology company) are developing a performance and app to explore these themes. For the performance – which will be showing at London’s Roundhouse, Ipswich’s PULSE festival, Derby theatre, the Traverse theatre in Edinburgh, and Reading’s South Street Arts Centre – each audience member will be given a set of headphones and a phone through which they will accompany a person’s grieving process. The character first finds out about the death of his ex-partner via online messaging, making us reconsider social media’s role in relation to human compassion, the meaning of community, our experience of alienation, and the way in which our memories surface.
With the National Theatre of Wales’ live-streamed production of Tim Price’s The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning (2012); the RSC’s collaboration with Intel and The Imaginarium Studios to create an avatar-Ariel for their 2016 production of The Tempest; and Palestinian actress Maisa Abd Elhadi’s skyped performance in Hannah Khalil’s Scenes from 68* Years (2016) at London’s Arcola Theatre; technology is making its mark on the world’s stage more than ever. User Not Found takes on the world of social media to make us think about ideas concerning immersivity in both performance and online spaces, ultimately urging us to ask how we experience loss in the twenty-tens.
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