How can we exist online after we die? Daphna Attias tells us more...
We spoke to Daphna Attias, creative mind and director of User Not Found, to find out more about the digital and thought-provoking production taking place in in Honesty Café at The Base, Greenham later this month.
Hi Daphna! User Not Found explores the concept of digital legacy and the question of what happens to our social media profiles after we die. When did you first come up with this concept and what was the process from your original ideas to the fully-formed production?
Three years ago Terry came to the office and showed me Caroline Twigg’s article in The Guardian in which she explores what should happen to her husband’s digital legacy after he died suddenly. It is a very poignant article, a moving depiction of grief that was magnified through the screen-life of the man she had lost in reality.
After reading the article, we began imagining a Dante or Die-style performance inspired by this contemporary addition to the grieving process. We wanted our audience to see into the online world of someone faced with the questions that go hand in hand with legacy: what should or shouldn’t you read, how has privacy changed now that smartphones and laptops are so entwined with our day-to-day living, and how do our digital identities compare with the ‘real’ us.
We began researching and led workshops with people of all ages around these ideas. It was a really interesting and unusual process. We met with John Troyer at University of Bath’s Centre for Death & Society, questioned Aleks Krotoski whose chapter on digital afterlife in her book, Untangling the Web, was an excellent resource alongside her BBC4 podcast The Digital Human. We also collaborated with Professor Lib Taylor at University of Reading on a research project exploring how social media has been used to date within contemporary performance.
We are not very technical people so when we came to put the team together we didn’t even know who we are looking for to create the technical elements. We were told we should look for a creative technologist and after many meetings, we were very lucky to meet Luke Alexander and Abhinav Bajpei from a creative digital agency called Marmelo; they seemed to immediately understand the possibilities. Their inventive and detailed approach to both the subject matter and developing the technical language, platform & content for the production has been a continued source of inspiration.
We then approached Chris Goode and tried to charm him to agree to collaborate with us as a writer. Chris is also not the most technical person so he hesitated at first but we knew that his warm, human and boundary pushing voice is what we needed for the show. When he came on board he helped us push and challenge our original ideas and ask gentle and challenging questions from our audience.
We knew that sound and light would be a very important element of the show. Yaniv Fridel designed the music and sound for the show with a radio play approach with lots of little details to take our audience away from the cafe and into Terry’s mind, and Zia Bergin-Holly designed a portable movable lighting design which is almost invisible at the start.
It took a lot of experiments to put all of these elements together, each collaborator worked in a different rhythm and each process needed a different approach but in the end we hope they come together to tell one story.
What are your thoughts on the power of social media in society today and the fact that many people now document large chunks of their lives on it? Do you think this is a good or a bad thing?
From the start we didn’t want to create a Black Mirror style show. We didn’t want to say anything about good or bad, instead we wanted to reflect on these questions as our way to document our lives are changing. How can we exist online after we die?
During our research & development period Chris created a Twitter poll asking: If there was a button that you could press at the moment of your death that would delete your entire online existence would you push it? The options were Yes or No. At the end of the day over 70 people had voted and the result was 52% to 48%. The fact that there was such a split in response convinced us all that this subject matter is a contentious issue, and one that we can provoke more conversation about through our production.
User Not Found will take place in the Honesty Café at The Base, Greenham. What was the reason behind this decision to tour the production in cafes and foyers?
We had made a few shows in real working sites and at the time we were working a lot in cafes. We wanted to explore the cafe as a site in which we come to be together alone, next to other people behind their screens and also explore the screen itself as a site.
In the performance, audience members receive a smartphone and pair of headphones. Was it important to you that the experience of the piece should be digital given the subject matter?
Yes, we wanted to explore how these devices that we spend so much time with, carry around in our pockets, and touch with our fingers, can tell stories. We wanted to also explore them as a way to truly connect.
What has been the response to the show so far?
We are very pleased with how the show was received so far. What we love most is that people come to us after the show and say they hadn’t thought about the subject, or how it made them think about things differently.
And lastly, have you made up your mind about whether you would delete your online legacy before the moment of your death if you had the choice? Has your view changed at all over the period you have been working on User Not Found?
We keep changing our minds about it! The process definitely made us rethink it again and again.