The Existential Paradox of Giving up Control

Kidnap, a performance work by Blast Theory (1998)

In the age of super-participatory socially mediated sharing of information, we are willingly, lovingly, sometimes desperately ready to give up our data to Big Data in order to engage with friends, colleagues, and family. But perhaps more pertinently, this form of super-participation may spring from the desire of “being in the world,” to gain proof of one’s existence, to receive affirmation, acceptance, and recognition from others.

In the late 1990s, before the age of social media, the London performance collective Blast Theory staged the interactive work Kidnap, in which they issued a call to the public to sign up to be kidnapped: yes, in fact, charging them 10 British pounds for the experience! From the list of registrants, two of the volunteers were, unbeknownst, grabbed by the kidnap team consisting of a driver and three kidnappers and taken to a secret location. The so-called “winners” were then held under Webcam surveillance for two days, where they were fed and cared for by the kidnappers and monitored by a psychologist.

The work has since been dissected by performance theorists, including Maria Chatzichristodoulou, who interviewed Matt Adams in her paper, “How to Kidnap your Audiences,” as well as Steve Dixon, the prolific author of the 800 page canonic treatise, Digital Performance: A History of New Media in Theater, Dance, Performance Art, and Installation. In Dixon’s paper, “Cybernetic-existentialism in interactive performance: strangers, being-for-others and autopoiesis,” he explains the control mechanisms used in Kidnap according to his current research “cybernetic existentialism.”

Dixon examines the motivation behind why people would actually be drawn to give up control, to yield to a greater force outside of themselves. Despite the fact, as he points out, that the victims were traumatized by the “emotional intensity of the experience, not knowing what might happen and what the limits were” Dixon claims that Blast Theory had in fact powerfully tapped into what happens when we trust a stranger and allow ourselves to be held in captivity.

Yielding to the stranger, or the “other,” according to Dixon, plays into one of the essential aspects of existentialism: human freedom. He describes how Jean Paul Sartre had considered Nazi control the ultimate experience of freedom, because when subjected to the life and death situation of facing one’s extermination, we are faced, ultimately, with the powerful realization of what it means to be free.

In Blast Theory’s Kidnap, the existential crisis of being held in captivity against one’s will, while subjected to the cybernetic control of Webcam surveillance and the demands of the kidnappers, according to Dixon, “went way beyond all the normal expectations of an artwork… a telling indicator of the powerful and uncompromising impulses underlying artistic manifestations of Cybernetic-Existentialism.”

The idea of the artwork engaging the viewer, existentially, in a potentially dangerous real life situation, is further elaborated in Maria Chatzichristodoulou’s interview with Matt Adams, where he further elaborates on the blurring of art and life and the mechanisms of control:

“Our projects are not hollow intellectual and aesthetic experiments, they are pieces of work that look to engage with, and ask particular questions about, the culture in which we live. If you take Kidnap as an example, the question we set ourselves was: why do so many of us give up control so readily to others and what is the pleasure in that?”

We can’t help but to wonder about the political ramifications of willingly yielding control, why we allow ourselves to be subjected to a greater authority. Most recently, TRUMP manipulated control politically in the body politic’s need for a “strongman,” convincing the blue collar worker that he alone could fix the system and “make America great again.” Systems of control as wielded in Blast Theory’s Kidnap powerfully illuminate the techniques of demagoguery and their manipulation of the innate human desire to be drawn into the forces of a greater power, only to be horrified by the reality of its realization.

Matt Adams has also foreseen the manipulative dangers of disinformation, which too has taken center stage in the recent TRUMPian political environment through the weaponization of social media that produce and infiltrates fake news into the public discourse to sway an election. Adams explains in his interview with Chatzichristodoulou, well before the controversial 2016 election:

Through social networking sites, for example, we all represent different slices of our personality. How can we make sense of the world when we are overwhelmed with different sources of information, when there is such a fluid boundary between fact and fiction?

And finally, at the conclusion of Chatzichristodoulou’s interview she quotes Gabriella Giannachi, another scholar of Blast Theory, who says:

I present Blast Theory’s work as political. This is not only because the company create spaces which are aesthetically and socially transformative, but also because they problematize the very ways by which we use technology as a lens and language to experience everyday life… Kidnap is about ‘giving up control’, but also being controlled. It is about looking and being looked at. It is about trust and endurance.

These are prescient words in contemporary media culture, as we find ourselves increasingly submitting to cybernetic systems to conduct our lives, engage with others, to mediate our experiences. In the work of Blast Theory, in which they situate the viewer in complex, socially dynamic situations to ask the hard, problematic questions: what kind of existential trap have we entered into in terms of total acceptance, reliance, and desire for technological engagement that permeates all aspects of our personal, political, social and emotional lives?

Matt Adams, Maria Chatzichristodoulou, and Steve Dixon are all participating in the upcoming Art of the Networked Practice Online Symposium, March 29-31. For more information: https://thirdspacenetwork.com/symposium2018/