Performing User - Week 9 Documentation

20 Apr 2016
courses, documentation, performing user

This week's assignment was around the theme of "remote user":

In pairs, create a performance study that happens remotely over a distance. What are similar or related themes in your individual work that could be paired somehow? How might introducing the concept of "distance" or "remoteness" or "disconnection" add to or change these themes? What are the different types of distance or remoteness? Physical, emotional, time, understanding, etc…

Will you be connected to each other or to other people? How does the dynamic change in a performance with one performer vs two performers vs many performers? Where is the audience positioned in relation to the performer(s)?

Fortuitously, I was going to be in Shanghai that week for work. I sent an email to the class list mentioning this and asking if anyone wanted to work with me. Yuli responded that she was interested and mentioned that grandfather's side of the family lived in Shanghai.

Yuli and I brainstormed for a while, and she had a great observation that, in many ways, Shanghai is the New York of China. We decided to try to back-and-forth conversation around this theme with people in both cities.

The idea went something like this:

  • Yuli gives me an assignment for some interaction with a stranger in Shanghai
  • I do the assignment and, based on the outcome of the assignment, create an assignment to give Yuli to do back in NYC
  • We do this back-and-forth several times, with the idea that certain themes would emerge and evolve and we could run with it

My first assignment from Yuli was to find a stranger and give them a note saying something nice. We had agreed that my follow-up assignment for her would be to ask that stranger if they had something they would like to say to a random stranger in NYC.

I chose one phrase and added the follow-up assignment on the bottom half of the page, so I could fold it in half and show the phrase to people and then flip the paper over to show them the question with the follow-up task.

I handed out the notes in a park while walking home after dinner one night. Not unlike New York, getting the attention of strangers is surprisingly difficult. When I approached people with a piece of paper I was preparing to give them, most would look at the ground and walk around me. I finally got one person to talk to me, here's what it looked like.

Performing User: Remote User from Zach Coble on Vimeo.
(The square dancing in the background is a wonderful phenomena among older women in China)

Her question for Yuli was, "How do you think of the word 'New Yorker?'" Or to put it differently, when you think of a typical New Yorker, what words describe that person? When I asked the stranger in the square how she would answer the question, she said she would describe New Yorkers as "busy" and having "lots of drama."

Back in New York, Yuli set out find the answer. She asked around for recommendations on the most New York place in New York, and soon set out for Wall Street. Unfortunately, everyone on Wall Street was too busy to answer Yuli's question, but she was fortunate enough to find a sympathetic Londoner on the train back to campus who answered he question. The Londoner also described New Yorkers as "busy."

So there you have it, a theme emerged. People from all around the world (rather, two people from two different cities) perceived New Yorkers as being busy, and New Yorkers themselves couldn't be bothered to take the time answer such a question.

Unfortunately, we ran out of time and didn't have a chance to do more back-and-forth assignments. In fact, the main challenge with that project that we didn't foresee was timing. Communication between Yuli and me proved to be difficult while I was traveling, mainly because of the 12 hour time zone difference. There were only a couple hours during the day when we were both awake, so our planning conversations about logistics ended up taking several days to plot. If we had more time, it would've been fun to see how this conversation between Yuli, myself, and random strangers developed and also what other themes might've emerged. If nothing else, I at least have found a new game to play when traveling to new places.

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