Strange Companion: Our Performative and Parasocial Lives

Amelia Wong-Mersereau

I started playing Elden Ring, the latest FromSoftware action role-playing video game by Hidetaka Miyazaki, upon its release in the spring of 2022. My partner had the controller first, and we were not far into the fictional region of Limgrave—a lush landscape of ancient ruins with a massive golden tree in the distance, whose glowing branches cover the whole sky—when we reached an impasse. Frustrated, I scoured YouTube for someone to show us the way forward. I found the recording of a Twitch livestreamer called 39daph (Daphne Wai, b. 1998). The video was immediately helpful; by studying her skillful movement and use of equipment and other tools, we were able to advance. 

39daph lives in Vancouver and streams almost every night at around 11 pm PST. Her streams consist of drawing, gaming, or chatting with viewers and can last up to ten hours. Throughout the night, she will usually pound back bottles of cold tea, various snacks, and fast-food orders. To my surprise, I found myself returning to her channel—I found her so entertaining that I started watching her playthroughs of other games—and eventually I followed her on Twitch. I felt like I was playing Elden Ring alongside her, and my confidence grew in the safety of our parallel progress.

I initially created an account on Twitch during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown to watch films and chat with friends. At that point, I was completely unaware of the millions of people on the platform gaming, eating, singing, dancing, chatting, and making art live on stream. It was Hao Wu’s documentary People’s Republic of Desire (2018) that opened my eyes to the complexities of the livestreaming economy. The film follows the lives of career streamers, notably two named Shen Man and Big Li, who earn their fortunes on the platform YY. Interviews with their devoted fans and paying subscribers, who range from poor labourers to millionaire business moguls, illustrate a phenomenon called parasocial relationships.

The sociologists Donald Horton and Richard Wohl theorized parasocial relationships in 1956 as a symptom of the proliferation of mass media, arising between spectators at home and performers on television.11 11 - Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl, “Mass Communication and Para-social Interaction: Observations on Intimacy at a Distance,” Psychiatry 19 (1956): 216. Interpreting Horton and Wohl’s work, the communications theorists Dibble, Hartmann, and Rosaen define the relationship as “the more enduring, long-term, and usually positive, one-sided intimacy at a distance that users develop toward media performers, based on repeated encounters.”12 12 - Jayson L. Dibble, Tilo Hartmann, and Sarah F. Rosaen, “Parasocial Interaction and Parasocial Relationship: Conceptual Clarification and a Critical Assessment of Measures,” Human Communication Research 42, no. 1 (2016): 24. Key for my research interests are the notions of intimacy and repetition. In a time when so much art feels vapid and market driven and institutions are more concerned with virtue signalling than fostering creative communities, what kind of meaningful experiences can art actually offer? How are audiences finding joy and connection in periods of isolation? This winter residency with Esse seemed like the perfect opportunity to see what kinds of theories and art projects featured in the past speak to my research topic.

The Authentic Event

I began with issue no. 79, Re-enactment, since I am interested in reading about parasocial relationships that occur between content creators and their consumers through the lenses of art history and performance studies. Feminist art historian Amelia Jones lays the groundwork in her opening essay for this issue: “the notion of re-enactment is in the air.”13 13 - Amelia Jones, “The Lure of Re-enactment and the Inauthentic Status of the Event,” Esse arts + opinions 79 (2013), accessible online. She uses Marina Abramović’s Seven Easy Pieces (2005), in which the artist re-creates her own and others’ performances, and Jeremy Deller’s restaging of political events such as The Battle of Orgreave (2001) as contemporary-art examples of re-enactment. Jones edited a book with Adrian Heathfield one year prior to this issue of Esse, titled Perform, Repeat, Record: Live Art in History, in which she defines performance as “the reiterative enactment across time of meaning (including that of the ‘self’ or subject) through embodied gestures, language, and/or modes of signification.”14 14 - Amelia Jones and Adrian Heathfield (eds.), Perform, Repeat, Record: Live Art in History (Bristol, UK: Intellect Ltd, 2012), 12. It is useful to have these definitions and examples on hand as I think through podcasting and livestreaming (two formats that frequently bleed into each other) as performance, and livestreaming, in particular, as durational and athletic performance.

The re-enactment of a live performance or historical event is an attempt to exactly replicate or recreate that initial thing, or as Jones puts it, to “retriev[e] the truth of the past.” Jones ultimately refutes that there is an authentic original event to begin with that would contain some true meaning. She writes, “The event is only ever known through the continual unspooling of memory as itself a kind of creative (and never fully reliable) re-enactment of the past.” And yet, North American and European societies are cultures of re-enactment, privileging the live event over most other forms of art. Arguably, our national, cultural, gender, and other forms of identity are formed through the repetition of daily, ritualistic performances. Temporality and repetition are also central aspects of the podcast and livestream formats (the ritual of tuning in, or signing on, for weekly or daily content, at the same time as millions of others), with the added experience of seemingly direct access to the performer in a way that differs from traditional performance art. The popularity of this kind of engagement is therefore understandable, especially as the climate crisis worsens and the Doomsday Clock is pushed closer to midnight than ever before; audiences seek authentic and meaningful experiences when engaging with art.

The Authentic Girl

In the film People’s Republic of Desire, the male streamer Big Li struggles in his personal life when he loses the annual streamer competition, whereas Shen Man has to contend with aggressive patrons who feel entitled to her body, online and IRL (in real life). She logs on every day to a barrage of sexualized and derogatory comments. In their testimonies, Big Li’s fans express clearly parasocial feelings and behaviours, but the stakes are entirely different when a woman is in front of the camera. Misogyny is rampant on social media and throughout online spaces, despite greater visibility and awareness of gender-based discrimination and abuse.

The gendered aspect of parasocial relationships prompted me to read the essay by artist and writer Jen Kennedy in issue no. 82, Spectacle. Kennedy examines the legacy of the Situationist International (SI)—of which philosopher Guy Debord, author of Society of the Spectacle (1967), was a founding member—and what she claims to be its overlooked obsession with the figure of the jeune fille (young girl). She begins by usefully pointing out that “spectacle” is not only the contemporary mediascape but “a type of relationship—between subjects and between subjects and their worlds—that is mediated by representations.”15 15 - Jen Kennedy, “GirlsGirlsGirls,” Esse arts + opinions 82 (2014), accessible online. She argues that Debord and his peers’ theory of détournement, “the critical repurposing of preexisting materials that engages past constructions to create new forms out of old ones,” is entangled desire, subjectivity, and subsequently gender. Though she calls the Situationists’ use of objectified images of women problematic, Kennedy writes that “in all their complexity and historical specificity, these representations also worked on, and thereby did work to, the SI.”

It feels appropriate to incorporate here Joanna Walsh’s Girl Online: A User Manual (2022), which I am reading alongside my residency, because it offers an updated look at the figure of the girl. Walsh writes, “Onscreen, woman defaults to girl,” and “a girl online is an avatar for everyone.”16 16 - Joanna Walsh, Girl Online: A User Manual (London; New York: Verso, 2022), 7. Similarly, Kennedy describes the image of the girl as a “malleable, transitional subjectivity, generally disparaged as superficial, narcissistic, and lacking in morality.” This figure is such so that a society’s hopes and dreams, as well as its desires and fantasies, can be projected onto her, an object rather than a subject. Kennedy also cites Tiqqun’s Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young Girl (2001), however, which Walsh has said she found herself writing against for a few reasons, but mostly because it is a slightly outdated discussion of the capitalized girl image from before when internet culture became what it is today.

In her article, Jones was writing about live performance art, but the performances mediated by technology and screens have different implications for our consideration. There is a low level of commitment required of the listener or viewer, who is visible to the performer only as a name or number on the screen. Furthermore, reading and thinking through Kennedy’s essay has made me realize that the virtual nature of these performances exacerbates the objectification of the non-white, non-male performer.

Time Is Money

Up to this very moment, a child who aspired to be a vlogger, streamer, or podcaster would be dismissed by older generations. Although these are recognized as legitimate careers in booming areas of culture, there is an oversaturation of content, and the consumption of their products is viewed as frivolous, distraction, or merely for entertainment. I gravitated toward issue no. 94, Labour, because I wanted to think through the conditions of the parasocial relationship, which depends on the labour of the performer. In her essay, art historian and critic Nathalie Desmet writes that artists are “perceived, often with envy, as free and little constrained by routine.” Unfortunately, she fears that “free time itself is in danger of being taken over by capitalism.”17 17 - Nathalie Desmet, “In Search of Unproductive Time,” Esse arts + opinions 94 (2018), accessible online.

Desmet looks at the work of artists Adrián Melis, Maria Eichhorn, and Pierre Huyghe to investigate the notion of unproductive time. Melis confronts the professional managerial class’s valuing of meaningless administrative jobs in Surplus Production Line (2014), in which a person is hired to destroy the résumés of all the other people who applied for said position. The comedy and absurdity of this piece reminds me of Joanna Walsh’s #theoryplushouseworktheory, which “involves doing a household, care or personal-upkeep task while reading, listening to or watching works relating to theory and theorists that are freely available online, allowing the worker to think as she works.”18 18 - Walsh, Girl Online, 47. Walsh goes on to list domestic tasks that she completed in her day, and the content that she consumed while doing those tasks. In a sense, media formats such as podcasts and livestreams encourage productivity because they don’t require a person’s full attention and physical presence for a finite amount of time, the way a theatre production or film screening would, for example.

The examples in Desmet’s essay are playful and political, shedding light on an unspoken fear by authorities of a non-working population: “Not working, as in the medieval myth of the land of milk and honey, is considered a threat.” Content creators have taken leisurely activities, and the performances of everyday life, and turned them into performance for the consumption of others. They maintain an appearance of not working while in fact they are labouring a great deal to please their communities and paying subscribers. Economic growth, technological innovation, and higher rates of productivity “should have led to a general increase in free time,” but instead people are busier than ever, burnt out, imprisoned by capitalism.

Performative Spaces of the Future

In issue no. 100, Futurity, art writer and production manager for esse Anne-Marie Dubois writes about the practices of Indigenous artists who reflect on the “possible futurities beyond the assimilationist tropes of colonialism.”19 19 - Anne-Marie Dubois, “Indigenous Intemporalities and Performative Futurities,” Esse arts + opinions 100 (2020), accessible online. I was curious to reread Dubois’s analysis of works by artist Skawennati in the context of my residency research.TimeTravellerTM (2008–13) consists of nine machinimas, or “short films created in the virtual environment of the game of Second Life,” that blend science fiction with significant historical events. Another machinima, The Peacemaker Returns (2017), which was initially created for an audience of five- to eleven-year-olds, educates viewers on Indigenous culture and traditions through a story set in outer space. In both works, Dubois writes, “Time overlaps in a non-linear fashion, thus challenging the web’s potential to offer a habitat for a truly decolonized space-time.” Virtual spaces offer the opportunity for the development of Indigenous identities in a different way than is possible IRL. Dubois argues that “the desire to create a performative space to generate alternative futures” is central to an Indigenous futurism.

In many ways, the phenomenon of parasocial relationships is a dystopian one. People can develop unhealthy behaviour such as possessiveness over a content creator who may have acknowledged their existence in a small way but whom they have never met face to face. But parasocial relationships, if they are balanced with IRL relationships, can be extremely positive and enriching. Skawennati’s projects and collaborations, including the numerous iterations of CyberPowWow(1997–2004)—an interactive chat platform project that combines web pages, artworks, and texts, produced by Nation to Nation20 20 - Nation to Nation is a Tiohti:áke/Mooniyang/Montréal-based Indigenous artist collective co-founded by Skawennati, Ryan Rice, and Eric Robertson.—bring people together, in a constructive spirit, across generations and cultural backgrounds, to conceive of the kinds of futures they wish to inhabit.

Dubois’s essay ties in a number of concepts that arose in the other texts that I selected for this residency. Indigenous futurism, which Dubois terms a “fundamentally political and performative” movement, feels like a hopeful, radical, and concrete note to end on for now. Although I was unable to find texts that directly addressed some of my research questions, I was surprised and pleased at the relevant threads that connected one essay to the other. These results have convinced me that it is beneficial to look at podcasts and livestreams as performance art, since doing so brings forward aspects that might not be considered in the fields of communications studies or sociology. I will continue to probe these newer media formats, which enhance people’s lives as outlets for creative expression, platforms for community building, and for the consumption of art and design.

Traduit de l’anglais par Sophie Chisogne

Links to articles cited: Amelia Jones Jen Kennedy Nathalie Desmet Anne-Marie Dubois

Amelia Wong-Mersereau
Amelia Wong-Mersereau

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