The Big Plot
PAOLO CIRIO, The Big Plot
Identity As a Multilayered Self
The dissolution of ‘identity’ as we used to know it (pre-networks) has led to an ongoing, fragmented, fast evolution. In the networked era, identities can be formed from extremely varied and juxtaposed layers of the enriched self. This process derives from the constant mediation that internet applies to every identity by means of the multiple platforms and standards usually defined by the popular expression ‘web 2.0’. This leads to multiple partial representations of the self in a multilayered form. The result is that, beyond ordinary physical life, our mind has begun to think in these terms already. We no longer experience our identity as an indivisible whole, but as something composed of different pieces that are deeply and reciprocally influenced by our online experience. Aesthetically speaking, these juxtaposed layers that host similar scattered bits of personal content, are transparent to different degrees and redundant. And the transparency of the self seems to be reflected in different cultural fields: mainly aesthetically – as in the pervasive use of glass in public architecture, in the transparent textiles of fancy dresses, or in the different types of see-through plastic used in electronic equipment – but also at the functional level, as in the continuous recording of every electronic act we make, as we write a sempiternal log of our lives. We are thus (voluntarily and involuntarily) induced to encode new parts of our informational body. That’s why a real person can become more and more indistinguishable from the character s/he may assume in the context and modalities of an online social network platform. What we used to call ‘avatar’, for example, has evolved from an iconic pixelated representation of the (real or imagined) physical self into being only one of the many virtual layers on which we stratify our public online presence. It constitutes therefore, a multilayered presence that, in the online environment, is considered as whole.
Online identities can be typified in a sort of ‘species’ taxonomy. This’d be summarized as: 1. the real person; 2. a real person assuming a famous character and playing his/her role; 3. a real person creating and playing a plausible fictitious character; and finally, 4. a computer generated, self-sufficient character. Cheating in the description or the use of an online profile is as common as the projection of a desire or an emotion onto a networked environment and, in the end, conscious and unconscious emotions actively build the ‘enriched self’. The emotive potential of triggering a new, or re-enabling an old human relationship, for example, is one of the most precious goods that social network platforms sell to customers. But it’s not only about individuals’ emotions and encounters. It’s also about the intertwining of the different relationships that start to move on the matrix, in which the loosely connected pieces of self become incorporated. Thus, hundreds of Facebook ‘friends’, for example, coupled with their offline ones and the countless others scattered throughout other platforms are ‘writing’ a sort of automatic narrative that can always, at some random point, be imagined as being ‘fatally wonderful’.
In this sense The Big Plot by Paolo Cirio is an intriguing multifaceted narrative that intertwines the paths of its four protagonists. The pieces of their respective identities are not created by short descriptions or flashbacks, as in the typical serial narration of a work of fiction. They are scattered among different platforms and careful use is made of the respective reference media (video, pictures, curriculum vitae, bits of info about personal activities, and so forth). In this sense the work is a pure experiment in building narrative from pieces of identities that can be retrieved from the respective platforms. Actually, there is no software tool able to effectively combine all these different data sets into an (incomplete) human profile, so the user role is both strategic and uniquely revealing. And that’s another crucial level of Cirio’s identity game: the visitor has to view and connect the pieces himself, as he would also in a real case of personal data search or a classic ‘investigation’. The more pieces he views and connects, the more he’s gratified to be closely acquainted, fictitiously, with the individual person/character. And the deeper the visitor goes, the more embroiled he becomes in the complex narrative. The big difference here, is that he’s not just turning pages to see what will happen next, or clicking in the same direction and under a known frame in order to choose his own path to a bunch of possible, predetermined ends. Here, the user is easily pushed to literally ‘investigate’ the subject with only a few directions and points of reference. This ‘investigative’ narrative is a contemporary twist in the sequence of events that we are used to.
When we’re involved with The Big Plot, we’re proactively searching the narrative, with no fixed expectations, thereby using a range of human skills – intuition, deduction, the ability to connect facts and similarities – while our typing hand is invisibly led by the hand of the artist. And Cirio goes beyond narrative experiment. He lets users create other characters that can interact with the one he created in a quite engaging and complex plot: a ‘big one’, as the name says. Opening up the plot is a much-used literary device but it usually serves simply, to loosen the focus on the carefully developed original narrative and let the user mash it in a somewhat playful manner. Cirio’s approach is different. His narrative involves the so-called ‘alternating reality game’, whereby a part of the fictional narrative is actively implemented in real life: and a few groups of enthusiastic users already follow his blueprint. Ultimately, this ‘recombinant fiction’ quite naturally approximates our everyday environment, full of multi-mediated, multi-dimensional selves. This injection of reality into the screen-based relationships thus balances the fictitiousness of programmable illuminated pixels with the flesh of reality, in an irresistible alliance. This definitely adds fluctuation – as a stable characteristic – to the self, which thereby affects in multiple ways an individual’s position in the contemporary mediated social landscape. The resulting identity is a conglomerate, a perceived entity that potentially can be composed at incredible speed and thereby generates what is perceived to be a human being. And that’s what our primary instincts are always looking for. Cirio’s skills are used to literally ‘explode’ the usual literary endeavour. The definition of a character becomes so ethereal that any potential manipulation seems possible. The virtual pieces are just data, their connections are just links and all the media involved are also just data. It’s a whole amount of information, properly structured yet potentially re-combinable ad infinitum. Vertigo ensues therefore, from infinite characters displaced between reality and fiction, infinitely programmed, and stitched together with real facts and data. This fast recombination of data and (‘man-made’) fast conglomeration of a credible fictive identity is a process that, pushed to the extreme, can populate the social networks with patched, human-like figures. They are intended to populate the networks, reflect physical reality and its dynamics, and contribute to shaping an online landscape that includes these soon-to-become ‘extensions’ of our daily life. And, in The Big Plot, this frightening scenario is envisioned with the potential to be implemented, and is open to collective testing by anyone who wants to enjoy a one-of-a-kind work of art.