Brighton Festival 2014
Where does online friendship stop and real friendship begin? Does the distinction matter? In 2011, Brian Lobel played a brutal game of friendship maintenance: over five days, he gave strangers one minute to decide which of his 1,300 Facebook friends to keep or delete. The deleting was real, the pace was maniacal, the results were final. Fifty hours of performance, 800 emails from angry, amused and intrigued friends and over 2,500 comments from strangers online later, Purge the stage show was born.
At first glance it’s an unusual premise for a show. In 2011, Brian Lobel, performance artist, did an installation called Purge, where random strangers got to vote on whether he should keep or delete them as a Facebook friend based on Brian talking for one minute about their connection. This incarnation of Purge, presented as part of Lobel’s Mourning Glory trilogy, is a performance based on the experience of the installation. And one step too far removed as that sounds, it really does work.
What the show is really about is connections, losing touch and dealing with loss. The impetus for Purge was the death of Brian’s ex partner and first love, Grant. They had remained friends following their split and yet at some point Brian realised Grant had deleted him on the now defunct social network Friendster. This prompted confusion and dismay from Lobel, and forced him to examine the nature of his relationship with his 1200+ Facebook friends.
Lobel is a relaxed and engaging performer, bantering easily with the audience despite the somewhat formal layout of the Dome studio theatre. He asks us who we would delete from Facebook given half a chance, garnering responses along the lines of ‘friend’s pets’ and ‘my mother’. He then invites a member of the audience to come onstage and delete a friend there and then. The first person rather unfortunately forgets their Facebook password, but a second person’s attempt is successful and a school bully is condemned to history.
With Purge, Lobel raises questions about the nature of friendship and accepting loss or the changing nature of relationships over time. Discussing with the audience some of the people who were deleted in the original performance (and inviting us to guess whether they were kept or binned), he highlights the many transient connections we make with people who would otherwise be long forgotten but thanks to Facebook remain there in our news feed, posting inane pictures of fluffy cats or dancing parrots. The show is not a critique of Facebook or social media, nor is it a celebration of it. However, I think a little more commentary on how the nature of friendships has been affected by the use of social media would have been interesting.
Overall the pace and format of the show worked well, with a good balance of audience interaction and storytelling. However, I think the formula of reading the audience the responses to Brian’s initial email informing his friends they were about to become subjects in his performance art piece, became a bit repetitive and some of these could have been cut. Yet, despite this slight issue, Lobel’s energy and charm made for a very enjoyable experience, light but with enough depth to retain my interest, and I wonder how many people went home and did a Purge of their own!