The first time I saw Brian Lobel perform, he was dancing non-stop to his own silent disco of show tunes, wired up to a monitor and VHS in an approximation of his teenage bedroom, inviting you to join him and bop along. The second time he was daring a squirming, smirking audience to ‘appreciate’ his genitals (in the medical as well as the colloquial sense) and the third time he was soliciting 60 seconds of the lives of the good people of Brixton, in order to sell them back a week later, via vending machine lucky dip in the form of a DVD.
His latest work, Purge, is equally generous, democratic and confrontational. A commission for MotiRoti’s ‘What Counts?’ season in response to the 2011 census, it’s another marathon of a show, elapsing over 24 hours and divided across four days, building on the preoccupation with time and value he explored in Carpe Minuta Prima. Billed as ‘the world’s most brutal game of friendship maintenance,’ Purge is intensely social and inherently collaborative, as Lobel tours four cafes across London and asks the coffee-drinking public ‘keep- or delete?’ In keeping with Michael Landy’s Breakdown (2001), a work Lobel cites as a key influence, he uses his own Facebook profile and its supporting cast of 1300 Facebook friends as his raw material. Just as Landy systematically destroyed each and every one of his 7000 possessions, painstakingly inventoried over three years, Lobel ruthlessly deletes a contact from his friend list if the state of the relationship doesn’t make the grade in the eyes of the panel. The original YBA was left only with the clothes he stood up in, so is his devotee playing it safe by sticking to the virtual world? Yet the distinction is becoming increasingly blurred. We may not have become any less materialistic in the 11 years since Landy’s installation in a disused branch of C&A on Oxford Street, but we have become exponentially more nodocentric, with 750 million of us projecting ourselves to the world via Facebook profiles. The ‘tyranny of the nodes’ has prompted academic Ulises A. Mejias’ damning proclamation that in today’s world ‘if you’re not a node, you don’t exist.’ And at times, the stakes do feel that high, with the artist admitting that for a good proportion of his friendship group, Facebook is his only point of contact and without it, he is essentially erasing them- if not from his past, then from his future. Part fast-paced game show, complete with score cards, buzzers and timer, part social experiment, Purge gives you an irresistible insight into another person’s social network, only to shine an unflinching light on your own.
This performer in profile is a self-confessed ‘active’ Facebooker, but you don’t need quite such a formidable online presence for Purge to resonate with you. The scale of Brian’s undertaking is daunting, as he attempts to give a 60 second ‘defence’ of each and every friendship testified by his Friend List, but as ever, the devil is in the detail. During my 40-odd compelling minutes spent on the ‘keep or delete’ panel in a cosy corner of the elegant Off Broadway on Broadway Market, E8, I shared with my two fellow panelists a clutch of priceless (albeit second hand) moments from the artist’s life. With staggering memory recall, Lobel recounted at break neck speed the time when he witnessed a school friend’s wrap skirt fall off in the cafeteria, or when he and a friend hustled their way into watching Sex and the City the Movie in a stranger’s apartment in New York City, or smoked shisha together with Pink in 2001… Then there were the idiosyncratic character sketches- ‘he makes the best chocolate and banana muffins I’ve ever tasted… we shared a bunk together at summer camp… we sat next to each other in band… he was the first man I ever fell in love with… I was her cell phone message for a year and a half.’ And we aren’t only asked to look backwards, but to look ahead- ‘we’ve only met once, but I think he’s potential… if I delete her, it’ll be really awkward next time we’re at the same party.’ With a less charismatic, less articulate host in the hot seat, the anecdotes would undoubtedly be less effervescent, less punchy. Delivered against the clock, there’s no time for the nostalgia to get too syrupy, and no chance for the panel to duck out of their decision-making. Half the fun is in second-guessing your colleagues’ responses, or analyzing your own as you bow to popular opinion or stick to your guns on hearing that ‘we haven’t spoken since college’ or ‘I don’t remember what he does for a living’ or ‘she’s my parents’ friend’s sister’s daughter.’
Lobel, not for the first time, is tapping into the zeitgeist here- not only through the modish conception of the Facebook ‘cull’ that carries many of the Aristotelian associations of catharsis as cleansing and renewing, but also by toying with the less benign act of ‘F-rape’ in freely surrendering his network, the annals of his social and professional life, to the scrutiny of strangers. In her essay ‘Generation Why?’ Zadie Smith argues that in ‘interfacing with the mind of Mark Zuckerberg,’ that is just what all of us Facebook junkies have done. We have relinquished control of our images, our identities, even our thoughts- or at least over the way in which they are represented, through a medium which necessarily inculcates conformity. We should beware the limits of the software, she writes, and not confuse them with the mutable contours of our sense of self:
‘When a human being becomes a set of data… he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. In a way it’s a transcendent experience; we lose our bodies…’
But Lobel is alive to this. In his own words he ‘makes work about bodies; politicized bodies, marginalized bodies, dancing and singing bodies, happy bodies, sick bodies…’ not least the memory of his friend and first love Grant, who was let down by his body. After the physical death of his friend, Brian was forced to mourn a virtual death when Grant’s Friendster profile was deleted, in a corporate ‘cull’ of the site’s content in May of this year. And what’s more, he discovered that at some point during their tumultuous relationship, Grant had ‘de-friended’ him on this now defunct social network. A virtual shrine, a narcissistic archive, a status symbol, an inescapable palimpsest, an inadequate identikit of selfhood; Purge is a parlour game that scratches beneath the programming.