Photo by Brittany Snellen

The bizarreness of and anxiety about how our social sphere has been shifting in the age of handheld devices and social media has certainly hit us all at one point or another. Personally, it hits me most when I take public transit and realize that everyone is looking at their phone, like a train full of isolated and mesmerized zombies. People avoid eye contact, barely anyone ever has a book or newspaper, and the group of people who are actually chatting with each other are the anomaly among the rest of those absorbed in the blackhole of their cellphone screen. Workshop participant and festival artist Stephanie Patsula cleverly created a performance out of this technological phenomenon on Thursday evening, May 16, at dc3 Art Projects, with the help of an overhead projector, a mirror and her cell-phone.

Live-streaming from her cellphone to her Instagram, Patsula shut out the world around and connected herself to her audience through live video and chat. All around the gallery visitors excitedly pulled out their phones to follow and participate in the interactive performance piece. Standing side by side, friends chatted with each other online and turned to laugh with one another at the messages they just sent. Screen names and emojis covered Patsula’s projected face only fifteen feet where the real-time artist lay sprawled on the floor, posing, selfie-ready, watching herself in her phone screen and playing with reflections in the mirror. Her oversized face gazed out at the people filling the gallery, her eyes locking with those of the visitors in the space, creating a sensorially confusing experience of connecting with the disembodied face of the physically present and emotionally disconnected artist. I panicked with my phone trying to find Patsula’s Instagram handle so I could join the performance.

Photo by Brittany Snellen

As faces disappeared behind screens, visitors were all at once engaging and disengaging, connected but disconnected, present but somewhere else. In the face of technology and live streaming social media, the dynamic of interacting face to face no longer fit the space. The process of finding, following, joining, chatting, liking, sharing no longer required that any physical bodies be present to participate in the very event happening around us all. Even more unsettling was being witness to Patsula’s intense concentration on only herself which ultimately ended up creating a multi-level cyber community in which people were suddenly connected through her whether they were physically present at the gallery or not. Those without devices, on the other hand, were excluded from the performance that was happening right in front of them.

Patsula’s performance carried on throughout the evening, while other performances went on around her. Seeing her in the background while I watched the other artists gave me an unsettling anxiety from having divided attention. I was distracted, but also able to partially tune her out. I wondered if the logistics of having multiple performances happening simultaneously with Patsula’s piece was premeditated or a serendipitous accident–I realized this was a direct parallel for how I live my life–constantly in multi-tasking mode, writing while I watch TV, talking on the phone while I write an email, having coffee with a friend while I respond to the text of another friend, chatting on Facebook while I edit my photos and blogs… Perhaps in this age of technology and device dependence we are really only ever half present. What does it mean for our social lives and relationships if we are never fully in tune with one platform of communication, but trying to manage multiple streams? Will we overkill or adapt and thrive?

Written by Brittany Snellen.

Brittany Snellen has a master’s degree in art history from the University of Alberta. She’s spent the last five years facilitating collaborative exhibition projects between art historians and artists. In her spare time you can find her photographing births and writing about art.