Anyone who has re-imagined herself as a stylish avatar on Second Life knows that the virtual world has considerable benefits. A bootylicous body is just a keystroke away—no need for the knife, or, god forbid, the butt blaster at the gym. You can even sport a lush foxtail—a kink that only mascots get away with in the physical world. It's fun, this digital living, but should it ever replace the old reality—even when that reality sucks? That's the question that occupies choreographer Paula Mann and media artist Steve Paul in The Closer I Get the Less I Believe It (A Journey Through the Uncanny Valley of Simulated Humanity), which premieres this weekend at the Ritz Theater.
In between rehearsing scenes at the University of Minnesota's Barbara Barker Center for Dance, Mann and Paul characterized their newest work as "a virtual funhouse," where unwanted memories can be exchanged for better ones. Yet, "when you start messing with people's memories it becomes very Orwellian," Mann says. "No matter how much you live in the now, you plan based on what's happened before."
Mann and Paul, it should be said, have plenty of history. The husband-and-wife team has devoted previous works to the past, commenting on such topics as the advent of film and the nuclear age. Yet they've always had a yen for trying out new technologies onstage. This time out, they're casting projections on a set of translucent curtains. Giant virtual dancers dwarf their counterparts on stage, or multiply one performer into many. Far from feeling gimmicky, the effect can be beautiful, and even psychedelic. Mann incorporates images of students pushing daisies into the barrels of soldiers' guns, reflecting her interest in the optimism of the 1960s.
"We jokingly refer to this as the revenge of the hippies," says Paul. "They really made the internet possible, they co-opted if from the military use. It's a commune connected through remote control."
Even with the rise of Wii, however, virtual reality remains just that; there's no physical contact. Suggesting that thought, Nora Jenneman appears on screen as an artificial being, a carnival barker who promises an opportunity to "live out your fantasies." Her smooth tone has a sinister edge, and as the performers enter her world they begin to lose their grip. She has "an evolving need for humanity," though, as Paul sees it. "She's envious of the losses people have, the sad memories as well as the happy ones."
"I feel like I had to say something about the possibility for a brighter future," says Mann. "People really get caught up in the news of the day and don't foresee that we could have an end to war, an end to famine. We wanted to show people going through a situation that was dark at times, but they come through at the end." Albeit, sadly, without bushy tails.