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Experiments in Networked Performance “Screaming Secrets from the Trees”

September 22, 2023 Summer 2023

You walk into a clearing in the woods and find yourself surrounded by crows, and they don’t like your outfit. They are not impressed by the shiny buttons on your shirt, your new haircut is bad, actually. “What are those? What are those?” they caw about the new black boots you thought were cool. Is this a performance?

Take it again, except this time they are your crows. You have trained them for this exact purpose. The first time you walked into the clearing it stung but now the criticism slides off your back. Is this a performance?

Take it again, except this time the crows are little crow robots (crow-bots?) controlled by your friends and family. They know how to hurt you like no one else, but can’t help but be nice most of the time. Is this a performance?

Take it again except this time insulting someone is enough to turn a crow human, and being insulted turns you into a crow. A metamorphic dance of invective and retribution as the jeering mob devours itself morsel by morsel. Doors at 6:30, Show starts at 7. Now we’re getting somewhere.

Welcome to Networked Performance. When Tiri Kananuruk and I were coming up with this class, we almost called it Experiments in Networked Audienceship, because that’s the part that changes the most, the part we can really shake up. If a singer sings a song on stage in a packed little venue in Bushwick or for a livestream audience on Twitch, they’re still doing mostly the same thing, singing the song. It’s the audience that changes, from standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a loud smelly room to typing in chat messages at their desk with noise-canceling headphones on or looking at a sideways phone in bed. But what is an audience really? Historically perhaps a silent observer, but really at its core an audience is a group of willing participants in a live event, who can be asked to do as much or as little as the performer desires, whether it be to type messages in a chatroom or remotely control a vindictive crow.

So that’s what we decided to play with in our class, new ways of being audiences and new ways of being performers using the ability of the internet to connect us in a million different configurations. For the technical part of the class we learned how to make websites with HTML, CSS and Javascript, and then to connect people to each other we used Websockets, a real-time technology that allows people on the same page at the same time to be aware of each other’s presence (think Google Docs, or the … in a messaging app). We also learned how to connect all the different kinds of inputs available to a remote performer/audience: webcam video attached to pose or expression detection, microphone input recognizing words, and even a custom hardware micro-controller made by Tiri and Sebastian Morales.

As an online class we spent our first four weeks focused on a purely live audience, interactions in purely online space, but the final week tool place in person at SFPC’s Electronic Cafe for Poetic Computation at RECESS, culminating in two live shows for a hybrid irl/url audience on Saturday, July 8th.

So what kind of things did we make for our big show? And what kinds of performances did we discover along the way?

OBS Video Collage

In-Class exercise for telematic performance using OBS by Lauren Wedderbum, Rabbit Henry and Brandon Tong

In our second class we broke into groups and acted out a short script that Tiri made. Each person would stream there own video feed into a browser window using LiveLab and then one person would collage all the video feeds together with other images and effects in OBS to create the ‘set’ for video actors to play out the script

Chatroom but Weird

Chatroom but Weird side-scrolling city builder chatroom by Jonny Thaw

Chatrooms were our starting point in learning Websockets, since websockets function by sending messages back and forth between multiple people on the same website, and that’s basically all a chatroom is. We started with a simple chatroom template and then made it weird in a bunch of different ways. What if everyone is always screaming? What if everything you say echoes back in a couple minutes? What if everyone has different instructions on how to behave? What if we turn it on its side and make a city?

Work by Adelle Lin, Nico Perey, Jules Kris, Justin Roberts and Cece Maravilla

In our final show one group brought the chatroom into physical space. In this piece by Adelle Lin, Nico Perey, Jules Kris, Justin Roberts and Cece Maravilla the audience members were each given one of four roles in a chatroom, and were responsible for directing different aspects of the performance including dance moves to do, sounds to make, and questions to answer.

Collaborative Music

Work by Halim Lee and Brandon Tong. A music networked performance. Audience can participated in-person and online by using the custom web instruments.

Another one of our early socket explorations was making musical instruments. We started by making a website where you could press keys on the keyboard to make sounds. We then added in websockets so you could perform for anyone who was visiting that website, whenever you would press the key they would hear a sound.

For our final show, Brandon Tong and Halim Lee took things a step further with a massive collaborative musical environment featuring 7 different web instruments that could be played on computer or phone which all created a shared soundscape at Recess.

Work by Paloma Dawkins, Solomon Leyba, and Kasra Mikaili. An audience member holds the microcontroller up to the light.

And in another audiovisual piece for the final performance, Paloma Dawkins, Solomon Leyba and Kasra Mikaili used the light-sensor on the custom microcontroller to let audience members make sounds with the lights around the room.

Directing the Audience

Work by Lauren Wedderburn, Dan Xu and Jonathan Thaw.

Networked performances allow each audience member to have their own unique experience, with special instructions sent to their own phone or computer. We first played with this idea in chatrooms, where one person would be instructed to only speak in questions, and another to only speak in compliments. For the final show Lauren Wedderburn, Dan Xu and Jonny Thaw created a performance where online audience members responded to a series of personal questions, and those responses were then sent anonymously to the phones of people in the live audience at Recess who were instructed to read them aloud, sometimes in whispers or sometimes in shouts.

Spirit Castles, a LARP by August Luhrs and Brent Bailey

August Luhrs and Brent Bailey took instructing the audience even further with a room-wide LARP that quickly converted RECESS into a balloon-filled madhouse. The in-person audience was split into one of four tribes, who received instructions on their phones from online audience members, with those online audience members receiving guiding instructions from Brent, the “God” in the world of the piece. The result was a chaotic mess of popped balloons, standing on furniture, party hats and soap bubbles.


We spend a lot of time interacting with each other with our networked devices, whether it be through video calls, social media or group chats, but there’s still so many unexplored ways we could be together. In Experiments in Networked Performance we talked a lot about liveness, the feeling of sharing a space together in realtime. It’s a shame that our most recurring experience of networked liveness is Zoom calls for work and school when we could be hiding in the forest screaming secrets from the trees.