Ann Hirsch Turns ’90s Web Chat into Performance Art

Ann Hirsch is an artist whose medium is pop culture itself, from the cam-chat rooms of the Internet to reality television shows. (In 2010 she landed a role on VH1’s Frank The Entertainer In A Basement Affair, and mined that experience for a series of videos and other works.) Recently, she debuted a performance, Playground, at the New Museum, the story of Anni, a 12-year old girl who gets to know Jobe, a 27-year old man via an AOL chat room in the ‘90s. That piece has been adapted into a unique app, available through iTunes. I chatted with Hirsch about the unexpected drama of online communication.

A lot of your work plays on the divide between your “real” self and an alter ego, cobbled together from scraps of pop culture, television, the web, and so on. As a result, it might be stupid to even ask “how autobiographical” a performance piece of yours is. With that in mind: How autobiographical is Playground? Did your 12-year old self really have an AOL-facilitated relationship with a 27-year old?

The short answer is, yes. I did try to stay as true to my experience as possible in both the app and the performance. That said, I don’t think my experience was a fairly unique or uncommon one. As I’ve been working on this project, girl friends have confided in me that they had similar experiences and just never shared it with anyone. And understandably so, these kinds of relationships feel very shameful. They’re taboo. 

Previous videos or performances you’ve done are about mediated relationships—whether those are mediated by the conventions of reality television dating programs, or by the Internet itself. How do you think technology has affected the way we interact with each other? Are we better or worse off now that we have OKCupid and Facebook, rather than those rudimentary chat rooms, back in the days of AOL, Prodigy, and individually run “Bulletin Board Systems”?

Social media, whether that be Twitter/Facebook or the old AOL chatrooms/MSN, has this tendency to heighten the drama and emotion in any situation or relationship. Sure, we’re not interacting face-to-face, but because of that, we’re free to go places and say things we might not normally. And since we’re alone in our rooms or with our phones, interacting at times with multiple people, we just internalize all this emotional shit and have no one to vent with or share it with in the moment. It all gets bottled up. 

The difference between then and now is that now, we are much, much more likely to go through these dramas with people we know in our real lives. So whereas in AOL days, there really was a distinction between my online and offline lives, today, the two bleed into one another. Everyone says the Internet makes everyone a "micro celebrity", but really I think it makes us all into "micro politicians". We’re all constantly having to be aware of everything we comment on, our Instagram posts, tweets, and everything else we do to manage all sorts of different kinds of relationships.

An internet-facilitated conversation between two people (even if there is a semi-shocking age gap between them) doesn’t seem, at first glance, to be easily translatable into a live performance. How do you go about making a digital chat into something theatrical?

To turn it into a play, I wanted to figure out a way to capture that same emotional intensity I felt when I was 12 and 13. I had to make the audience feel what I felt. So I knew I couldn’t keep it solely realistic, just showing them typing to one another the whole time. I had to take the characters out of that realm and into a fantasy world, the one that existed in their heads, where they meet, talk face to face and actually get to touch.

So, the play begins with just them two, typing at their computers, and you see a projection of their chat. This is the true banality of their relationship. I wanted to ground the audience in the world of "chatting," where you’re just alone, in your room, at your computer, waiting for someone to message you, and excited when they do. Then, as their relationship becomes more intense, they start talking directly to one another and eventually physically interact. This is where the fantasy and the drama unfold. While in normal, everyday life, we view our time spent online more as the fantasy part of our lives, and interacting with real people as being more "real"—with this show, I was able to switch that. And because of our continued use of these technologies, that seems to be more and more the case. That "offline" interactions are becoming more of a fantasy, or unreal to us, because socially mediated ones have come to dominate our realities.

How did you go about translating the performance into an app, sold through iTunes? What can people expect from it?

To make the app, I started with the dialogue from the performance, which was originally written in AOL slang of the 90s, and then I added a whole cast of characters to create a fuller picture of the chat room scene. When people download the app, they will feel like they’re logging back onto an AOL that has been extinct for 15 years. They’ll enter into a chat room (not live) and be confused at first by all the different screen names, but soon personalities will appear and they’ll all start to feel like your own Internet friends. The user will follow the journey of Anni, who starts in the chat as a newb, but then becomes very popular, with the help of her new friend Bethie. We also see Anni engage in multiple online romances, one of them being with Jobe, the older hacker guy. The narrative plays out as you scroll through the chat rooms and various instant message boxes that pop up.


Ann Hirsch will stage a performance at Interstate Projects in Brooklyn on November 2. Stay tuned for more information.


Annemarie Wolf as Anni and Gene Gallerano as Jobe in Ann Hirsch’s Playground.



Photos courtesy of Oresti Tsonopoulos

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