“Power Struggle” by Olga Kisseleva, with Jean-Marie Apostolidès, Mélanie Perrier, Mandeep Gill, and Julien Toulze

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June 27, 2013
10 pm – approximately 11 pm
Building 550, Atrium
Blog Response and Photo by Tanya Augsburg

Have you ever tried to install two or more different antivirus software programs into the same computer? If so, you probably found out the hard way that many are incompatible. Have you ever wondered why? Since the threats of destroyed and stolen data are so pervasive, it would seem that there would be a great demand for antiviruses to work cooperatively—or at the very least, to not conflict with one other.

The logic of capitalism suggests otherwise. Olga Kisseleva is an international artist who works in the interstices between science and art. She prefaced her performance Power Struggle late Thursday evening in the atrium of Building 550 by explaining that antiviruses (and by implication, software companies) are in competition with each other. She then ran on her computer a data visualization of a battle between four antiviruses that was projected on a wall. Each antivirus was assigned a different color. Constantly shifting shape and size, each antivirus also appeared as a blob of code. The four blobs of color migrated from their respective corners of the computer screen towards the center, vying for control. One color gained dominance by usurping data from the others, thereby increasing its power percentage (which was represented visually as screen space). The struggle ended when the computer screen was saturated 100% with the victorious color. Kisseleva likened the action to the behavior of politicians, “as unproductive as it is dangerous.” She additionally compared her work to the paintings of Malevich, thus viewing her new media work in relation to art history.

Oh dear, I initially thought, lacking any previous knowledge about the artist or the work being presented. Did I really want to watch streaming numbers and letters flicker in different colors on a projected computer screen when there were so many other live performances taking place at the same time elsewhere? I decided to stay to see what would happen next, and I’m sure glad that I did. I became captivated by the four brilliant commentaries to Kisseleva’s staged warfare performed live in succession. Each performative response lasted as long as its accompanying antivirus battle. The first was performed by Stanford’s own Jean-Marie Apostolidès, who cracked everyone in the audience up with his satiric academic lecture. Professor Apostolidès explained how what we were seeing represented the battle for dominance among theoretical schools in university departments of literature. That the color red would represent Marxism and psychoanalysis would be regarded as blue were no-brainers, but the reasons why feminism was green and deconstruction was yellow seemed a bit more arbitrary. He peppered his brief history of deconstruction’s reception with jokes such as the following: “Derrida wanted to be buried only after three days because…[dramatic pause] you never know.” It was during these moments when Apostolidès’s explicitly blurred the boundaries between the academic lecture as a performance genre and stand up comedy. He was followed by choreographer Mélanie Perrier, who, with her back to the audience, moved her body in response to the screen action. Physicist Mandeep Gill explained how the four programs mimicked the competition among forces in nature. His lecture was cut short when one of the antiviruses surged to victory. Finally, composer Julien Toulze played an original music composition from his computer. Four distinct musical elements started off in harmony with the industrial dissonant sound gradually became more dominant. The musical piece ended up sounding like irritating noise, perhaps a fitting statement regarding the encroaching influences of data and computing on our lives.

On the one hand, Power Struggle is a remediated reinterpretation of the Rashomon effect, a conceptual meditation on how differing disciplinary worldviews determine what we see and how we make meaning. On the other hand, the performance challenged viewers to consider what is at stake when making aesthetic judgments. Unlike the four antiviruses, the four live performances were not pitted against each other. Could viewers resist the tendency to judge one interpretation “better” or “more valid” than another, and in so doing, refrain from reenacting a mental “power struggle”? Would viewers look for common ground among the four different performances instead? Or would viewers craft additional interpretations based on their own worldviews, experiences, and knowledge? These were heady but pertinent questions to ponder given the cornucopia of performances that took place during PSi19.

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