In Shuzo Oshimi’s comic series, Drifting Net Café, the protagonist runs into his first love from middle school in the internet café that he frequents. It is pouring outside and they must spend the night in the café. The next morning the rain stops and they walk out of the café, only to find a heterotopia before their eyes.
At midnight, August 21st, 2016, a group of people performed live for an entire night at What A View Internet Café in Beijing. The computer screens were set to replay via screen recorders in the morning, with all the traces of the previous night left around them.
August 21st, six in the evening, at What A View Internet Café. I held up my cell phone and was about to film the last scene of Speed Show: Drifting Internet Café. 45 computers, one of which has been in use for 18 hours. Someone had been using it since the early hours of dawn and then replayed the recorded screen. A few computers could not bear the overuse and constant reboots and died with their screens turning black. The intercom of the internet café continuously announced that “computer no. X is out of money.” The other computers turned off automatically one after another, like cyborgs giving a curtain call. Everything felt as if they were drifting away in smoke. Love’s labour’s lost. The 45 participants only really started to leave the internet café at this moment or forever disappeared from real life.
A little after 11 PM, I ran into an old lady selling flowers near the Beixinqiao subway station. I bought two bouquets to bring to the internet café, though they had nothing to do with internet surfing … I forgot about the flowers until a few days later, only to find them gone.
If we were to hold the virtual world accountable, the flowers might have been translated into parts of PHP or some other web developers coding language—an ornament at the bottom corner of some random website. Or the flowers might have been left in their original spot, while humans went to the other side of this so-called “original spot” …
From an outsider perspective, the relationship between man and machine is a representation of commodity fetishism. Internet cafés have become the weak joint for multi-ported polyamorous relationships. One type has been called the counter-space of “divergent heterotopias”: asylums, prisons, resting homes—these heterotopias house deviant individuals. Internet cafés have no direct coercive force, but a minoritarian heterogeneity acts more as an asylum for the self. This is the wanderer’s (non-)choice: not the first, not the last, not good, not bad. What is important is on the screen. The constitution and preservation of heterotopias cannot avoid the online condition. As the opposite effect of the heterotopia is found in the mirror— “Online, I don’t see where I am, yet there indeed I am,”—they share the same condition — “I am in a place where I am not.” In this relationship, what one encounters is not a machine, but content. A battle at the internet café might not be as violent as the content that occurs on the screen.
Probably, there was “fear of content,” but I was not afraid of the continuous encounters that occurred. I inevitably chose to forget the whereabouts of the flowers. Real intention cannot be diluted by the virtual. The next day we eventually saw the light of dawn (on our way to purchase breakfast at the convenience store)—a sight that is hardly ever seen by “spiritual rovers.”
The flowers are for those who will encounter them tomorrow.
The internet originally appeared to us as an open and diverse form, but today this world of controlled internet has become highly conservative. This conservatism in the space of the internet café becomes especially apparent as we, a group of strangers, intervened, acting as a kind of foil to the scene.
With a group like ours in that setting, oddly surfing the internet, a theatre was naturally formed. This was a spatial construct. This space was not built with walls. Unlike the unconscious act of playing online games, we shaped this space by attracting people around us. Those surfing the internet around us could not help but “fall out” of their game. They took off their earphones and craned their necks to look.
The place where we were and the areas surrounding us: there was no absolute normality or absolute otherness in the relationship between these two, only the reciprocal movements of entering and exiting the game. This is quite significant. But, regrettably, I could not see the reactions of the people at the internet café after our departure.
Speed Show: Drifting Internet Café essentially stems from the revelry in “Chomsky’s school of linguistic thought” and the desolation left after this revelry. The actors are computers, not people. The 6-hour (from 00:00 to 6:00) interaction between human and machine is nothing more than choreography and makeup preparation to decorate those computer actors—a long and slow foreplay. The darkest places in the shadows behind the software used by the participants conceal the logic of Chomsky’s hierarchy of human-designed computer language: a massive, defined, closed, opaque logic.
Humans spent time to thoroughly decorate the human-made machinery, then left one after another as if it were an exquisitely plotted consecration ceremony…The power to the machines was cut off, one by one…The execution was filled with seriousness, like a sacred ceremony. Only when such a reading is allowed can one return to and reinterpret the Aristotelian notion of “tragedy.” And when the power to the computers was restored, every image or sound that surfaced spoke the same Chomskyan language and displayed the same Chomskyan logic devoid of the subjective language of any of those involved.
It was only then that the work really started to perform, facing a group of “abstract” audiences—people who were completely nameless to their creators. It was also only then that it was seen as an “aesthetic object” for the first time, although the coming of each climax also signified its end, even for just a second, followed by a long-lasting period of clarity.
Though today I am almost in my thirties, it feels as if I am crashing a party full of strangers whenever I enter an internet café, and I cannot help but feel a little anxious. No one pays attention to things outside the screens. With earphones on, they appear totally invested in whatever is going on before them. It is the same as it was more than ten years ago: man manipulating machine, machine domesticating man, man cursing machine, machine torturing man, the fusion of man and machine.
I still recall how I felt the first time I visited an internet café with a mix of discomfort and curiosity to go through that tedious process of “surfing the net.” I registered my first OICQ account, talked to people in different time zones, and tried to spy into the lives of those different from me—the need to spend five seconds to come up with a response for someone who is at once a stranger and a “close friend” on a chat line, imagining that we could have our “first intimate encounter” …
This time, after I consciously logged into a chat line on a public computer, I immediately lost any impulse to chat. Real internet cafés erase any romantic notion of “drifting.” I was disheartened by my lack of readiness and gregariousness.
Having lost its absorbing qualities, the internet café has simply become a stage for a performance. Therefore, the participants seem more like they are constructing a simulation of reality, an improvised role play.
When an addictive behavior takes a collective form in a public setting, it always becomes a bit of a spectacle. Arcades, dance halls, internet cafés, they are all sites for “low-brow entertainment,” corners for “freaks.” But who doesn’t have an addiction or a secret hobby? It is just that most people have the luxury of enjoying them in the privacy of their own space.
That night I did not know who drifted past whom. Those in the reserved area came in wearing bizarre costumes, played music, danced in full makeup, and recorded videos. Those outside this area appeared indifferent. The internet café is a “non-place.” The world everyone was trapped in was just a window on the screen for our voyeuristic gaze. At the same time, it was impossible to join this world simply by observing it. Computers at internet cafés are perhaps the lowest terminals in the computer world. They send clients to various game worlds, help internet gaming companies make money, require real names to play, charge fees by the hour, and their keyboards and mice are always greasy.
It was clear to me that I would not disrupt anything, neither in the reserved site nor outside it. All I did was to apply a face mask and read the latest news and gossip from internet celebrities.
Sun Xiaoxing’s cyborg theatre continuously changes its form to provide us with all kinds of perspectives to understand the theatre of today. This is how the theatre has been for thousands of years, forever dealing with two problems: people and space.
Why do people think that characters in the traditional theatre—which can be seen but not reached—are real, whereas those in cyberspace—which keep you company all the time and possess a higher degree of affectivity and functionality—are fake? This is a dual “nausea” that is located between societal collective fantasy and individual bodily experience. Here people drift in a space of counter-living, reaching a contact point with an absurdist reality.
Everyone who has experienced cyberspace can tell you what freedom is because freedom only exists in the void. Then why must we get offline to meet each other? We plot out the encounters of our offline bodies in physical spaces as theatrical events, for “the spirit” cannot see as before, and can only be experienced among the living. People who are online will not really sign off, and that is the reason why they meet offline.
Translated by Gregory Young
This article was originally published in 《艺术界》（LEAP）9/10 (2016). Republished with permission.
Sun Xiaoxing 孙晓星 is a playwright, theatre director, and critic. He is a faculty member in the Department of Theatre and Film of Tianjin Conservatory of Music.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.