Rob Wittig and Claire Donato - a writer, a multidisciplinary artist, and a netprov contributor – discuss how a sense of performativity linked with playfulness and joy of collaborative improvisation constitute the very core of netprov.
Image: DALL-E, at a prompt: “A futuristic image of a group of people and AI improvising a theater play”.
Summary Keywords: characters, play, people, mark, remember, twitter, project, high school, feels, platforms, participated, high, question, wrote, game, performance, JJ, jj, community, conference
Speakers: Rob Wittig, Claire Donato
So let's start with how you first got involved with Netprov.
My memory is of getting most engaged with Netprov when J Johnson1Jeff T. Johnson, a writer and critic hailing from Brooklyn, NYC: http://www.jefftjohnson.com/writing.html An entry in ELMCIP Knowledge Base is also a good starting point of further explorations https://elmcip.net/person/jeff-t-johnson (all footnotes by Anna Nacher, unless stated otherwise) and I came up with the concept for All Time High (2015)2More on All Time High: http://meanwhilenetprov.com/ath15/index.php/about/ , but I believe that we participated a little bit in the SpeidiShow (2013)3More on SpeidiShow: http://meanwhilenetprov.com/index.php/project/speidishow/ Also: R. Wittig, M. Marino, The SpeidiShow Players, “SpeidiShow: a netprov.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 11, 2015. doi:10.20415/hyp/011.g08, and maybe in a few other games prior to that. I remember being on Skype as a group during All Time High. I remember with you and Mark and JJ doing improvisatory Skype sessions where we were parodying TED Talks. I think we called those talks Ned talks.
Yes! That was fun!
That predated All Time High. I remember that being really delightful. It was sort of like doing improv theater in the computer. And that was innovative at the time, right? Because that was probably around, maybe 2010, 2011. And we didn't yet have Zoom technology. We were using video chatting in a way that's really ubiquitous today, but was less ubiquitous then. Maybe Netprov entered my radar because of SpeidiShow and because of going to ELO conferences and getting to know you, and Mark Marino. What were the SpeidiShow-adjacent games?
We basically live tweeted an imaginary SpeidiShow TV show every week, doing gossip about it and pretending to be super fans. You might have done some of that.
I think JJ and I both participated in that, and possibly late like, maybe it's something we came to mid-way in. Then we had the idea for All Time High, which is the Netprov game we came up with wherein everybody imagined themselves back in high school, but also imagined characters in high school such as High School Jesus played by the poet Cassandra Gillig4Cassandra Gillig is a poet from Kansas City, some of her digital traces can be found here: https://cassandragillig.com/mywork and here: https://cassandragillig.bandcamp.com/album/put-me-in-charge-of-poetry-magazine — that's still one of my favorites to this day! Then, of course, there were also imaginary characters who weren't famous. So we concepted that game, and then you and Mark helped us realize it. That’s when I really came to Netprov.
Would you kindly sketch a bit of your background — writing, performance?
When I was looking at undergraduate schools, I wanted to pursue a BFA in theatre. My high school self — it’s funny that we're reaching that far back while talking about All Time High — auditioned for theater programs. So there's always been a theater kid’s soul within me. And when I started college, I engaged heavily with writing and then went on to the graduate program in Literary Arts at Brown immediately after undergrad so theater fell by the wayside. I maybe read a little bit of it, but it's not something that I continued pursuing. But a sense of performativity has always been part of my practice, especially in terms of a certain playfulness and sense of improvisation that I bring to my work, which spans forms and media. I write books, I have a fiction novella out, and I published a full length poetry book. I have another fiction book coming out very soon and other poetry books, but I have also made time-based sculpture art-collage video5An example of Claire Donato’s work: Material Studies https://vimeo.com/181441011 that have been exhibited at Electronic Literature Organization conferences and elsewhere. I do illustration, I make music. I take photographs. So I think yeah, that sense of play and improvisation is really entangled with all of my practices.
Great! As a side note, my own first encounter with your work was you and J Johnson roaming the aisles of a big conference amphitheater in fantastic costumes and doing this amazing performance event and engaging the audience. It was just incredible!
That was Special America6More on Special America: https://elmcip.net/creative-work/special-america , which was this multimodal multimedia performance lecture that JJ and I gave a few timesI think we probably performed it less than 15 times all told, but each time we did perform it, it was always site specific. For instance, we would perform it at an Electronic Literature Organization conference and the site specificity would involve researching the audience for whom that performance was going to be delivered, tailoring some of our performances content to them, choreographing the performance within this space where the conference or show was going to be held, etcetera. We costumed it and DJ’d it and often had a full dance happening, or yoga postures. It was pretty wild and influenced by The Yes Men's activism, Judd Morrissey and Mark Jeffreys performances, and the Goat Island Performance Group.
Thanks! Let’s talk a bit more about All Time High, because it’s one of favorite Netprovs, just a brilliant idea! Looking back, what are some memorable aspects or key passages of play from that month that really stand out to you?
I remember that Netprov, All Time High, as marking one of the last moments when Twitter's algorithm wasn't dictating time on Twitter in the way that it does now, which feels very important to note historically. While we were playing, Twitter allowed us in real time to send play updates or perform and we would see the timestamps in the order that they were sent, which was integral to making a narrative take place. It was cogent. So that's one way I remember that netprov: we're at this precipice of Twitter changing as a platform. And now is an interesting time to talk about it with everything that's happened with Twitter in the past few months. But Twitter to me now is just this series of really nonlinear impressions and recommendations that an algorithm dictates versus something that once felt more temporally sound, whatever that means online.
That’s a great observation.
Now you're just seeing what is popular on Twitter, right? Or what got 60 likes within the past day that you might also like. Or maybe if you and I are connected on Twitter I see what you like, because Twitter thinks I’ll like it because you like it. So that moment of Twitter performing the way it performed then feels really important and stamped into my mind as to being absolutely integral to making that performance run and giving us a space in which to play.We couldn't play that way there anymore.
I remember All Time High being incredibly immersive. I think it took place in a summer over the span of a month. I remember doing a lot of work for it — work in terms of play — and deeply immersing myself into the world. And I remember each week had a theme.
There was like The Big Dance, The Big Game, I think The Talent Show. The Big Dance was prom.
Graduation was the last week.
Claire Donato 09:27
Something you just said jogged my memory. Something that was momentous that happened during All Time High is that we somehow got Boots Riley7Raymong Lawrence „Boots” Riley https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boots_Riley of The Coup and I'm Sorry to Bother You fame to agree to play a concert as part of our performance. I'm forgetting if he played graduation or played the dance. But that felt really momentous. We connected with him online, as JJ had roots in Oakland, and so did Boots.
I remember there being a chicken sanctuary as part of All Time High, which I curated and came up with and was really dear to me as part of that performance and the chicken sanctuary figured in each week. And there was a sort of arc to the Claire character. I had a lot of characters at the time, but my 16-year-old self was one of them. She was an idealized 16-year-old me who was a vegan and had these radical political leanings, and she tended to the chicken sanctuary.
I remember really fondly playing All Time High with the poet Cassandra Gillig, who I think is just so brilliant and funny and an amazing curator. She wrote Jesus in High School, which was great. I remember some friends from my own high school coming back to play. They had learned about it on Facebook. I reconnected with a best friend from high school who played herself, which was really sweet. She wrote herself as a high schooler and we reconnected through that experience. I'm trying to think of other characters. Was there an Anna Akhmatova?
Rob Wittig 11:25
Yes, there might have been one I think. Did you do a Sappho?
Claire Donato 11:31
I did Sappho in high school for sure! I'm trying to remember who some of the other famous characters were . . .
Rob Wittig 11:39
There was a Morrissey that JJ did, maybe?
Claire Donato 11:44
Yeah, that was JJ. I think Talan Memmott had a punk band he wrote about.
Rob Wittig 11:50
Yes! Which has continued to be a real punk band again, life and art intertwining!
Claire Donato 11:56
What was the name?
Rob Wittig 12:00
Something vomit. Spam Vomit! [laughs]
Claire Donato 12:07
[laughs] Mark Marino, what did Mark have?
Rob Wittig 12:10
He did the Vice Principal among many others. And then an amazing guy, Michael Russo I think, did a series of Johnny Depps starting with the 21 Jump Street, undercover-cop-in-a-high-school Johnny Depp and the character went from Johnny Depp movie to Johnny Depp movie as his character evolved.
That was brilliant! I totally forgot about that. So brilliant.
And as you point out, that’s another experience you can't reproduce because if you print Twitter, it'll go with the most recent avatar. But in real time, we would see the Johnny Depp character’s avatar change every couple of days from movie to movie.
Claire Donato 12:55
Yeah, you know, yeah. Oh, that's so brilliant. I'm remembering that I'm trying to think of who else participated. I don’t know. It was quite a lineup. We had Kate Durbin8Kate Durbin is a writer and a digital artist from Los Angeles. Her work was presented at the ELO Conferences: https://www.katedurbin.la/about playing, Andrew Klobucar9Andrew Klobucar is a an associate professor and an e-lit practitioner at the New Jersey Institute of Technology https://www.andrewklobucar.com. Also: https://elmcip.net/person/andrew-klobucar also played.
Rob Wittig 13:27
Claire Donato 13:32
And the special guests were interesting. So the special guests included Jake Kennedy and Kevin Mcpherson Eckhoff, Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt dropped in. Flourish Klink.10Flourish Klink: https://www.flourishklink.com Also: https://elmcip.net/person/flourish-klink I also want to give a shout out amazing design of All Time High. I really thought it was beautifully designed.
Rob Wittig 14:09
We had another collaborator on the website, one of the other design professors at UM Duluth, David Short, who helped with the beautiful hand lettered typography for the different weeks on the site we built. What’s it like to be those multiple characters in real time. What was your experience of that?
Claire Donato 14:34
I remember it being really fast paced and really immersive. Like I said: a job. I mean, it really felt like doing a lot of work and writing. It was my writing project that summer. I remember getting more attached to certain characters than others. I tried to make, I think, a Virginia Woolf character. There were some characters I would try on and they wouldn't work as well as others. As somebody who's now writing auto fiction, it makes sense. I became attached to this sort of fake version of my high school self and wrote her the most. Actually, I don't even know what other characters I wrote the most. But I do remember getting attachments to characters and to their plot lines. And maybe that makes sense writing a narrative you have characters that are major characters and characters that are supporting characters. Netprov creates a space where different hierarchies of characters, for lack of a better phrase, can emerge. It happens organically. It's not like one enters a netprov game and thinks: I’m going to make supporting actors.
Rob Wittig 15:49
All Time High got a double reaction very consistently that I loved when we explained the concept to someone. ‘You’re gonna play your high school self in Twitter, and we’re all gonna be in high school for a month,’ and people would laugh, and then their faces would drop and get very serious, and they'd go, “oh.” The depth of it would hit. It was a one-two punch. Your concept was so fun and funny — and it got deep for people really quickly.
Claire Donato 17:18
Oh, totally! Two things come up in my mind. I've gotten very deep into psychoanalysis in the past six years, which of course has to do with like spelunking these former selves and renarrativizing our lives, trying to make sense of the past. And I'm also thinking about a new version of my website that is going to go online at some point. The designer Bryce Willner is helping me with it. And for the background of the webpage, I gave him a bunch of material ephemera that he scanned. Much of that ephemera includes high school photographs I was at a dinner party the other night with friends and they were calling it “the website that has high school you in the background.” So sitting here, it makes me think about this attachment to the high school self as being of continued importance.
Rob Wittig 18:13
What do you remember from the live sessions where we would have Skype on and kind of be able to talk as we wrote?
Claire Donato 18:31
I'm vaguely remembering this, I'm remembering the Ned talks. And I remember the Changing Faces project (when Mark Marino and I wrote each other’s Facebook sites for a period).11More on Changing Faces: https://markcmarino.com/wordpress/creative-works/changing-faces/
Rob Wittig 18:49
I would just set up an iPad up on a shelf and Joellyn Rock and I would have a few netprov featured players in our living room. And you and JJ would be on screen. We’d hear your voices. And then Mark Marino, at one point, was calling in from Paris. Those were fun!
Claire Donato 19:13
I do remember there being important timestamps per week at which we would all play together in real time. But then the games would also continue throughout the day.
Rob Wittig 19:24
How has participating in netprov impacted your own creative and scholarly practice?
Claire Donato 20:02
I'm sure my pedagogy has been touched by the interactivity, empathy, collaboration and sense of play within netprov. I try to make classrooms that feel a little bit like there's some element of play going on, whether that's actually a proper game taking place, whether we're performing together, whether we're forming a collective and making things together. The collectivity of netprov extends into my pedagogy. It's interesting, I have two collaborators now Anastasios Karnazes and my boyfriend Nik Slackman. And I think a lot of the improvisatory sense of play that we did together in netprov is an affinity I find with them in the way in which we collectively create together. We make projects separately, together, or as a trio. And I also think it’s the theater kid kind of sensibility, or theater soul, that brought us all together. It still brings me to my closest collaborators and the people that I love the most.
During the pandemic, Anastasios, Nik, Ian Hatcher12Ian Hatcher is a writer, sound poet, digital and performance artist, and a coder https://ianhatcher.net , Amalia Soto (Molly Soda)13Molly Soda is a net artist http://mollysoda.exposed and I tried creating a project called In Your Living Room with a Wrist Band never quite found its feet. Maybe one day. We were thinking about it as a fake music festival that would take place in Zoom where nothing would happen that would take place within the context of the pandemic living room setting. We were working really hard to try to conceptualize and execute and it never quite got there. But it was fun to think around.
Rob Wittig 21:48
I would encourage you not to let that go. I think there are a lot of possibilities there! In Your Living Room with a Wrist Band!
Claire Donato 21:59
We never could quite figure out what it was. We had the net artists. Net performance artist Molly Soda made a webpage for it. The game part of it just never quite coalesced. We were able to find the humor and theatricality of the concept. But that je ne sais quoi thing that would have taken it higher we weren't able to locate.
Rob Wittig 22:28
Well, I’m a great believer in half ideas and quarter ideas. They often meet up with their other half later on. You'll find a place for it!
Claire Donato 22:43
Anastasios Karnazes and I did a project for the Poetry Project marathon last year. I wrote an abecedarian summary of the film Donnie Darko called Dante Darko that he animated as a film. It’s seriously playful and quite peculiar, sort of burgeoning. So within the video, again, that same sensibility extends into later work for sure.
Rob Wittig 23:20
I’d like to ask about the community building potential of netprov — netprov, as a tool to build bridges in a polarized society.
Claire Donato 23:36
Oh, my gosh, where do I begin? I mean, when we did All Time High, we were coming together as like a collective of people making something bigger than ourselves for a month one summer. And that project like remains as an archive, it remains as a point of connectivity for you and I for everybody that participated. And I recall Mark, and maybe you did as well, your classes would join Netprovs that you've facilitated. That seems like such an incredible pedagogical tool to get people playing together in a class where that can be difficult to facilitate.
I also think something about playing in the computer together is different from playing in person as well. People can feel less inhibited within that space, or they can try on different avatars within the space. Seeing people within a digital space can reveal a different facet of their being and thus bring us closer to another. JJ and I were partners when All Time High, emerged, or when it was something we came up with, and it brought us closer together as collaborators.We had our daily life and then we had this project that was with a greater community. So, that’s pretty tremendous to remember too, that there're these different layers of collaboration taking place. It’s like you and Mark — I think of you also as a community in a way. Yes. And yeah. And maybe that flourishes from the two of you being a community
Rob Wittig 25:16
What are your thoughts on netprov and post truth, post 2016, the significance of fiction in the current environment, including politically and socially controversial aspects?
Claire Donato 25:45
Like that people are just lying, or posting deep fakes on platforms? And where does netprov fall? Or what is its responsibility? I think maybe I have more of a rhetorical question to pose that neither of us can answer, I'm sure. The thing with platforms right now post-45 is that they’re increasingly conservative, as we've seen with Twitter. A lot of platforms are not safe spaces. I'm putting that in quotations because it's a complicated term“not safe spaces” for people of color, or for people who don't occupy able-bodied, cis forms. So what is the responsibility of netprov? I wish I could answer the question or what sort of projects should be made in response to the conditions of the digital sphere that do continue to oppress people, right? Do you have thoughts?
Rob Wittig 26:55
I mean, we haven't done a project in Twitter for a while. We still use public platforms, but ones where you can create a sub community like Reddit. You can get trolled, but we never have yet, knock wood. But a bigger project surely would. Personally, I tend to do things that aim to be self evidently absurd right from the beginning. In the past we have had more of a taste for things closer to the “is this real or not?” line. In calm times, when there is not a lot of public lying, that's a different thing. American society has always had fringe theories, but they're now not limited by duplication and distribution costs, and they are melded into the mainstream. So it's a different landscape. I try to make netprovs sillier, friendlier.
Claire Donato 28:24
There also still has to be room for play, for theater, for trying on characters for being online. It might be somebody who already exists or is dead. You’d like to believe that there just has to be space to do what we did when we did All Time High. But what does that look like within the political space of these pseudo public private platforms?
Rob Wittig 28:55
You mentioned the incredible, very interesting, project that you and Mark did where you simply swapped Facebook identities and tried to play each other for a period of time, causing great concern in both groups of friends, as I remember.
Claire Donato 29:12
I would never call it a regrettable, but I think it probably like did freak people out. And maybe I would do things differently from this current vantage point, but it was funny
Rob Wittig 29:29
The Changing Faces project made explicit what we all kind of know: that we're all always performing identity anyway. But that's, that's more difficult right now, and maybe, you know, maybe too tender. Let's let things calm down a bit, and maybe we can go back to . . .
Claire Donato 30:24
After the next election.
Rob Wittig 30:26
Yeah. How has netprov evolved in the last decade?
Claire Donato 30:52
I think this platform change feels so important to underscore in whatever History of Netprov that might appear. Again: it started on a Twitter that is no longer, Twitter that could function as a stage with particular timestamp markers. You had to try other platforms, find spaces to play where you can keep people safe, especially potentially bringing students into the mix. So the issue of choosing, like the network space on which the performance takes place is really part of the historicity of netprov. I think it's situatedness. And the electronic literature community feels really important because it is a form of live, improvisatory digital theatre. And that makes the umbrella of electronic literature something that can contain it. That feels really important.
I'm curious to see what future netprov will continue to look like. That’s what's on my mind right now. It's delightful to think about it from this vantage point and to think about what's changed. And I think there's also that grief, inevitably, when remembering it because so much has changed.
I think the particular friendships and communities that were built around netprov feel important to mark — mark as a verb not Mark as proper noun. [laughs] The collectives and communities of our art practices are what we remember as we think back on these things. And I remember during a hot summer getting to hang out with you with Mark with JJ, with Reed Gaines with Cassandra Gillig. I mean, that was my memory of the summer, and it was fun.
Changing Faces: https://markcmarino.com/wordpress/creative-works/changing-faces/