On Continuous City: A Conversation with Marianne Weems

Image: "Chorus: The City You Want To See" from the Continuous City website

Marianne Weems is the artistic director of New York-based multimedia theater group the Builders Association. Their productions often tackle contemporary issues related to technology, such as "post visual forms" of surveillance in Super Vision or the impact of globalization on identity and language in Alladeen. They are currently developing their newest project, Continuous City. The play examines contemporary experiences of location in relationship to the rise of megacities and a distributed sense of selfhood. One unique component of the production is a fictional social networking site named "Zubu" which will collect testimonials and footage from inhabitants in each city in which Continuous City is staged. In conjunction with their week-long residency, Weems, along with fellow collaborators, will give a free public talk on Continuous City at the Kitchen in New York City on Saturday June 21st at 5pm. -- Ceci Moss

Could you please explain, in brief, the overall framework for Continuous City?

I think the overall frame of the show has to do with place and displacement and the blurring of locations that are brought on by contemporary travel, as well as this idea of the networked self -- so that wherever you are, you're also partially somewhere else. All of these stories revolve around that in many ways and the three main characters -- the father, the businessman and the nanny -- are all connected to different networks expressed in various avenues throughout the show.

How did you begin to cultivate the idea behind Continuous City?

Well, I always do an inordinate amount of research before it becomes a theatrical project, so I read Mike Davis's book, Planet of Slums, and even though its kind of like purple prose, it's very interesting as a study of megaslums and the idea of this ever expanding urban landscape -- a new kind of city. And, of course, there's a huge amount of writing about social anthropology and urban anthropology and urban space now, so that whole idea of the changing nature of a city was really fascinating for me -- not as a theatrical idea obviously -- but more as a sense of these hidden spaces that are slowly becoming visible. I also read a book called Shadow Cities by Robert Neuwirth. I'm very interested in his account of this invisible world that's slowly becoming visible in the first world and, especially, his sense of how people living in these places re-purpose technology. Like in Rio, the fact that most people in the favellas have cable because they've just pirated it off of one cable line and then it runs all through the favella, so even if they don't have running water, they all have cable. I started thinking about how specific kinds of technology are being implemented and marketed to the developing world. I'm particularly fascinated by how social networking translates to other cultures. Since Facebook and Myspace have become completely endemic here, there's a whole new market for social networking sites in these other places, and they are faced with the task of replacing what are essentially real networks or other kinds of networks.

Do you think that's related to the ubiquity of mobile phones in the developing world, because they're cheap and they're accessible?

Right, exactly. Many places in Africa have gone straight to cell phones and they're never going to wire. It's really interesting. When I first started working on Continuous City, what I wanted to do initially was to go to some of these classic "megaslums," which I'm using in quotes because it has a slightly derogatory feeling to it, but that's what a lot of urban scholars call them. I wanted to see if there was a way to engage those populations in a project. And, we sort of halfway ended up doing that. Obviously, it's extremely complicated to do that and not be completely colonial because you really have to go and spend years in those communities in order to do something really meaningful for them.

I then began working with this filmmaker and writer Harry Sinclair. I wanted to do something with a little girl because I had this image of this very small girl in front of a huge mediascape and how that would be staged and what it would feel like. So, he came up with this story about a father who's an urban anthropologist who travels around the world and communicates with his daughter who's at home through videophone or whatever - some kind of futuristic mobile phone device. That essentially became the narrative for the story. We just got finished going around the world shooting Harry, who was the actor and the filmmaker, in Mexico, Shanghai, Toronto, Las Vegas and L.A., so, we're going to continue shooting in all of these places and that's part of the media used in the narrative of the show. That's the other half of the dialogue.

The other question I had was about the website for Continuous City. I'm wondering if that website, itself, would stand in for the social networking platform or if you're planning to additionally bring in information from more mainstream sites such as YouTube. I also noticed that the videos I watched on the Continuous City site seemed scripted. Are they actually scripted?

That was a very early Beta site that I developed with the guys from Yahoo Media Labs while I was an artist-in-residence at UC Berkeley last Fall. The version right now is a very primitive site and we're bringing it to the next phase, one that will become an integral part of the show. And, yes, what people upload to the site will become a part of the theatrical production. This site -- Zubu -- that they're talking to and recording material around is also the site in the show that the father is promoting. It's like a Greek chorus but it's also a narrative thread because the idea is that we want more people to join Zubu - Zubu being this kind of fictional idea of a site that could be anywhere and engages people in this transnational experience and talks about place and dislocation. There are two threads about that. One is that - in our previous shows we've had sort of accompanying websites like in Alladeen, which was about Bangalore and call centers - which was quite a while ago. We opened it in 2002. We had a website - alladeen.com - part of the site was for people to leave their wishes for the worldwide genie because it was based on Aladdin - and I was like "oh my god, that's is the hokiest idea." My collaborators really wanted to do it and I was like "really?" And tens of thousands of people left their wishes on it because it's a very simple formula - you don't have to do anything in depth and we're not really asking people to create something like they would for YouTube. It's just-- leave one word, one wish. So, that ended up being folded back into the show. We had these LED screens that had people's wishes on them. The end result was actually quite moving because it was so simple.

With Continuous City, we wanted to do something that would travel with the show. We wanted to give people a chance, wherever we perform, to engage through the website and end up on the stage. And it was scripted. We're not using that same script on the current iteration of the site, it's like a karaoke speech where there were blanks that participants would fill in. Like "I'm from\_\_\_", "but, now I live in\_\_\_."

Like mad libs?

Yeah, it was like mad libs! But what made it like karaoke - and what made it kind of impossible - was that we had a bouncing ball over the text and they were supposed to be reading it at the same time, in the same rhythm - so that it would really be like a chorus and that failed completely. (laughs)

Well, you know, it's all part of experimentation...

Yes, exactly! (laughs) It was completely beta - it was interesting to try and especially to dialogue with these guys from Yahoo because they were completely open to new things and they had the tools to make it. So…we are doing something like that, but it's not going to be a bouncing ball. It is still a little mad lib, but there is much more room for people to discourse about their transnational experience. As we've been going around the world, we've been recording people like Chinese migrant workers and East Africans who live in Toronto - sort of setting up a base for the site. Obviously, they're not doing it on the web, but it will set up a kind of chorus that other people will hopefully join in.

And those videos will function as as sort of prototype for people contributing to the site?

Yeah, exactly. My hope is that it will be this huge grid of faces and that and as you mouse over it, one voice will come out, one face will pop out and then you'll here what they're saying. So, we're giving up on the idea that it's going to be one continuous chorus. But, it's still this idea that it's kind of a set amount of time for people to talk about their personal experience of dislocation and displacement.

I also wanted to discuss the connection between Super Vision and Continuous City because Super Vision was staged in 2006. Over the past two years, self-surveillance, especially through social networking platforms, has become even more profuse, with Twitter, Facebook feeds, etc. I'm wondering if you've witnessed this change in your research for Continuous City.

Well, definitely one of the early things that I was interested in at Super Vision was self-surveillance and that idea of, from reality television to the internet, how people have sort of internalized that idea to, you know, policing and presentation and censorship and the sense of public and private. So, I did a workshop of Continuous City out at UC Berkeley with students who are obviously so immersed in Facebook - like they can't live without it basically. I had them do monologues based on their profiles - they would just put their profile up on screen and talk about themselves, which was a very interesting sort of performative device because they say things in their profile that they were very uncomfortable saying on stage, but what's the difference really?

We included a sort of critique of Peter Field - the guy who started Facebook, who now has many ties to lobbyists and is a notorious conservative - so, how your personal information is circulated and how basically all those students are volunteering all of their information to allow access in a much more visible way than when we started Super Vision in a way. So, that was a really weird moment to see that that idea of surveillance had extended.

Yeah, the thing with Continuous City, too, is that whereas Super Vision was very critical of that sort of surveillance, it seems Continuous City takes a more positive stance on these sorts of technologies.

Exactly. Yeah, I think it's really actually so much easier to make dystopic work. We made a kind of trilogy - Jetlag, the piece we did with Diller and Scofidio and Alladeen and Super Vision - and they were all about how technology basically gives the illusion of being closer together while in many ways driving us further apart. You know, that's a very clichéd summary of the whole thing - and they were extremely dystopic. Super Vision was I think a little "cool," like it was talking about things from the outside, whereas I'm trying to make Continuous City not necessarily more positive, but leave it as an open question.