The Roman Forum Project (2003)

I co-created and directed this new media performance work with visual artist Antoinette LaFarge at the Beall Center for Art and Technology, UC Irvine, March 2003. In this hour-long mixed-reality piece, we wanted to take a close, hard look at the American political scene in the period since the enormously controversial 2000 presidential election. In particular, we were inspired by the 37 days at the end of 2000 when votes were being recounted in Florida, the Supreme Court was chewing its fingernails, and no one knew who the president was going to be. We felt that for maybe the first time in our lifetimes, the mandatory scripting of American politics had come unstuck and an element of geuine uncertainty and forced improvisation had entered.

This project was a sequel to a piece of a similar title that we did in 2000 (The Roman Forum), and it used the same central concept of characters drawn from 1st century Rome and plunged into the maelstrom of 21st century American politics. Including the orator Cicero, the actor Quintus, the writer Petronius, the empress Poppaea, and a slave named Germania, the characters brought their individual experiences of a Rome wavering between republic and empire to bear on our contemporary situation. We dressed them in white clothes and whiteface makeup, as if they were marble statues come to life.

An unusual feature of this production was two parallel casts of characters: one that performed in an online, text-based world, and one that performed in the physical space of the Beall Center. The two groups communicated using telematic technologies, so that the online group was present to the audience in the Beall Center via projections and audio (through text-to-speech synthesis).

We designed the set without fixed seating, so that the audience circulated among the various stations of the performance like citizens at a political rally. Platforms were built alongĀ  the walls of the space, creating a frieze-like effect that echoed Roman art. In addition, there were multiple projection surfaces activated throughout the piece, in some cases providing backdrops to the actors and in other cases serving as the primary medium of the performance. There was also a green-screen area with a live video-camera, used in one scene to create a live vide montage (seen in the image shown above). A square platform was set up in the center of the space as a kind of boxing ring to manifest the contests of politics. All of the technology of the piece was made as transparent as possible, with lighting, projection, and sound control boards set up along the edge of the central boxing ring, allowing the audience to appreciate the technicians as part of the show. The actors’ dressing room was also included in a corner of the performance area.

Some performance videos:

“Apologizing for Everything”

“Counting the Ballots”

“The Committee on the Supreme Court”

“Lament of the Repubocracy”