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Festival connects art and technology

Clarification appended.

More than two dozen performers and literary theorists came together this weekend to showcase their talents in Interrupt II, a three-day multimedia art studio that highlighted the impact of writing and performing on digital media. 

The festival featured readings, performances and discussion panels aimed at developing questions about multimedia in the modern world. Interrupt II was held in the Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts Feb. 9-12. 

The first Interrupt, hosted by Brown and Rhode Island School of Design, took place in 2008.

The studio was headlined by Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans of JODI, a Netherlands-based digital art collective which aims to "interrupt conventions" through multimedia art, said Clement Valla, professor of digital and media and foundation studies at RISD and website developer for Interrupt II.

JODI began its performance by screening a four-frame video composed of YouTube clips in which children and young adults destroy GameBoys, cell phones, keyboards, computer monitors and other technology. The video is both viscerally intense and intellectually provocative, artfully subverting expectation about how we use technology and provoking the question of how we can make a distinction between destruction and deconstruction of the digital medium.

To a chorus of "Smash the phone!" and "Break it!" from the audience, JODI ended its performance with a group demonstration of an iPhone application the collective had developed. Four volunteers followed instructions from their individual phones, creating performance art through a combination of dance and exercise movements dictated by the app.

Heemskerk described her inspiration for the iPhone app as coming from the device itself, adding that it is more than just a telephone. 

Roberto Simanowski, assistant professor of German Studies, took the stage Friday to speak about digital media as a form of "warfare against conventionality." His talk dealt with a discussion of Facade, an interactive video game based on artificial intelligence in which the user inputs text to interact with characters in the game. 

Simanowski said he recognizes the seduction of absurdity that attracts users to interactive, computer-generated discussions. Players of Facade are not drawn to dialogues about work, hobbies or interior design — when given the chance to provoke any conversation, free of real-world constraints, players consistently move to "test the system" through socially inappropriate discussion, he said.

 There is a contradiction implicit to the genre, Simanowski said. The concept of human and computer interaction is so avant-garde that the style of the game must be "as conventional as possible" in order to fool the player, he said. Simanowski made observations about the need for digital media to appeal to popular culture if the ultimate goal of programming is to be achieved — to get the player to believe the scenario and to "forget" the machine.

Vanessa Place, co-director of Les Figues Press, a literary press in Los Angeles, performed appropriations of transcribed accounts that focused on provocative, and often uncomfortable, social trends and subjects. Among them were frank discussions about alcoholism, child abuse, racism, homosexuality, 9/11 and self-identity, framed in viscerally unpleasant but captivating narrative.

Many of Place's spoken pieces included a key word or phrase, which was repeated in almost every sentence and occasionally between every other word — for example, in a piece about an alcoholic man accused of child abuse, she continually repeated the phrase, "I don't remember." This element of subliminal influence added another dimension to her performance.

Only towards the end of the 45-minute reading did sparing laughter begin to surface from the audience. For the majority of the performance, the drama of the pieces was further intensified by Place's delivery — a deadpan and monotone reading with the sporadic ‘swish' of paper falling to the floor, as Place paced around the stage, dropping the pages as she finished reading them.

Interrupt II showcased diverse talents in fiction, poetry, digital performance and literary critique, each with themes surrounding the role of multimedia art in modern society. The festival as a whole addressed the question of how art will continue to evolve in an increasingly technology-oriented world.


An earlier version of this article reported that during her performance as part of Interrupt II, Vanessa Place performed works of fiction. Place's performances were actually not fiction, but appropriations of real transcribed accounts.


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