“Purge” by Brian Lobel

Friday, 28 June 2013
7:30pm – 8:30 pm
Clubhouse Ballroom

Blog Response by Bryan Schmidt

Brian Lobel’s Purge initially took place in 2010 when, over the course of two six-hour sessions, audience members voted for him to keep or delete each of his over 1300 Facebook friends after hearing from him a one-minute excerpt about the person (usually written by Brian himself, but sometimes through words chosen by the de-friending candidate). The act of putting his friends on trial for their virtual lives led to numerous angry messages, pre-emptive de-friends, and stories of reconnection, which were the subject of this year’s re-performance (or perhaps documentary performance) of the event.

What interested me about this piece was its revealing of how deeply significant Lobel found not only the act of being on Facebook (that is, the maintenance of his virtual profile), but the way that so many of his friends regarded the platform as an extension of their own selves; in the original piece, Lobel clearly stated in a mass message sent to all his Facebook contacts that they would have the possibility of re-friending him once the performance was over, and yet, he still received many messages in which friends expressed anger at having their friendship be used as the raw material for a very public art display. Besides bringing to the fore questions about the artists’ ethical obligations, the angry Facebook responses to his original performance (read aloud by Lobel as part of the PSi performance) exposed the level of care these people put into their Facebook relationships, and the lack of separation they find between their self and their online self. Many of them seemed to find no difference between their online relationship with Lobel, and their relationship with him in the physical world, an indication of the increasing overlap of the virtual and the non-virtual in contemporary U.S. life.

Most of the show’s duration was occupied with Lobel simulating the process of adjudication that composed the initial piece. Audience members were given signs to hold up with “keep” or “delete” written on them, and asked to vote after hearing a little bit about a person. The tactics that Lobel’s friends took to convince the public to vote to keep them were varied, and it was fascinating to see the ways that the audience divided in their voting. Some seemed to respond positively to impassioned pleas to maintain the friendship; others voted up the people who made insightful points about the piece’s controversial ethics or underlying premise; a couple curmudgeons voted to delete absolutely everyone; most all seemed to positively respond to those who made playful references to past sexual contact with the artist. After the voting, Lobel revealed the choice that the initial audience had made, ultimately focusing spectators on the discrepancies between their own methods of social evaluation, and those of the collective.

During the performance, Lobel three times asked audience members to come up to the computer (with the screen projected onto a backdrop), and choose a facebook friend to delete. The differing strategies and affects that each interaction brought up illustrated the diversity of individuals’ relationship to Facebook, and perhaps to the internet as a whole:

The first person to volunteer was yours truly; to me, deleting a friend could have been a relatively innocuous task since, during my first years on Facebook, my extrovertedness and lack of care about online privacy led to a long period of me accepting any friend request that I received. Thus, I now have a bevy of Facebook friends whom I simply do not recognize, and it would have been a simple matter to excise them from my virtual life. But I wanted to make the process just a little harder on myself; I wanted to have the performance actually leave a lasting, tangible effect. I ended up settling on deleting an old friend from a community theatre production I did in 5th grade, someone who I still would check in on from time to time, but have not and will likely not ever speak to in person again. My choice in the virtual space of Facebook, then, effectively did sever our relationship completely, demonstrating a breakdown in the dichotomy between the “real” and the “virtual,” which seemed to me to be a central exploration of the original piece.

Another audience member’s choice involved deleting the Facebook account of a deceased relative whose profile had become a curated memorial to the person. Despite the difficulty of breaking off contact—the emotional affect that the action imposed was quite visible from the audience—she felt that it was a better choice than to have her memory of the person mediated through the corporate commodification engine that she saw Facebook to be.

Interspersed throughout the approximately 50-minute performance were vignettes that discussed Lobel’s relationship with a now-deceased ex-boyfriend with whom much of his communication had been based on online interaction through now-outdated web platforms like Friendster. The touching story indicated the extent to which the internet can no longer be thought of simply as an impersonal mediation of “true” friendships that occupy physical space; rather, the web interface should itself be thought of as a physical site enabling friendly connections, memorializations, or performative expressions. This notion, articulated through Lobel’s PSi performance, effectively demonstrated the stakes of the original Purge.

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