Purge: The Facebook Friend Reckoning

Brian Lobel has created a trilogy of performance art pieces called Mourning Glory* inspired by the unexpected death of a boyfriend.  He performed an adaptation of the second work in the series, Purge, at the Forest Fringe in Edinburgh.  It remains one of the strongest and most affecting pieces I saw during the week and the one that continues to linger in my mind as time has passed.
From Love Letters and Lehman Brothers by Brian Lobel

The original performance of Purge was a 6 hour event in 2011 where Brian would review all 1300+ of his Facebook friendships. He would defend the friendships for 60 seconds each.  He would only say things that were true.  A panel of audience members would vote on whether to keep or delete the friend. In advance of Purge, Lobel warned his friends in a form letter what was going to take place. He gave them options—preemptively unfriend him, set their profile to limited, or make a case for their friendship being kept and he would share that with the voting audience.

In this companion piece, we would get to vote to keep or delete friends but we would also get to hear the postscripts as to what happened during the original purge and what impact Purge had on these friendships in the intervening years. Audience members could also participate in their own mini-purge. Lobel offered his laptop and anyone could get up and delete a Facebook friend then and there. The screen was projected for the audience to see.  The man who stepped forward was scrolling down his Facebook page when someone in the audience recognized the name of UK theater critic Andrew Haydon and shouted out that he should be deleted (he was not; the man chose his sister-in-law!). This was another Forest Fringe piece where audience participation increased the intimacy of the work and made for self-reflection.

In the course of Purge, Lobel tells a bit about his relationship with his boyfriend Grant and the genesis of Purge.  Lobel had discovered that at some point in time Grant had unfriended Lobel on Friendster (when that was still a thing). Lobel and Grant had broken up at the time but that change in friend status and more importantly Grant's click to unfriend caused Lobel to wonder about what those simple adds or deletes mean.

As Lobel read out Facebook messages and emails from friends after they had found out about the project you hear how some people were desperate to be kept and this digital tie meant something to them, others thought the Facebook would not change their real life relationship with Lobel, some struggled with the public execution method being employed in the Purge, and some could not handle the project at all and preemptively deleted him.

From Or Else Your Friends Will Have To Do It by Brian Lobel
By participating in a faux purge, we could experience the weight of these decisions, without the actual consequences.  It was harrowing to think of these as people, with feelings, and the fate of this digital friendship was in our hands.  As an audience we were sometimes in sync and other times there were outliers who wanted to either to keep or delete. 

This was not just about ending relationships.  Lobel also asked for people who wanted to make a connection.  I spoke about a roommate I had lost touch with. Someone I adored. She happened to be a stripper (how else does one pay for NYU) and at some point she just disappeared.  I still search for her from time to time hoping to find her.  Another woman spoke of a friend of her ex-boyfriend’s who she really missed. She went before the room and tearily added him to her Facebook friends.

Maybe it was to be expected but Purge was very emotional.  Friendships, digital and IRL, are fragile creations.  The show left me thinking about how we come together and connect, how we sustain our relationships, and how we handle them ending.  Purge forced me to think about the first Facebook death I experienced--I still remember my friend's final status update and the strange memorial that his Facebook page became after he died.  Purge was so insidious because it takes such a regular activity and reframes it.  Bringing the audience into the work meant that much of the work's success is in that the audience is with Lobel every step of the way and is part of a conversation with him about their lives and these relationships. 

As social media becomes a major part of our lives it creates a new platform for connections to be made as well as a new ways for feelings to be hurt.**  All it takes is one click to add or delete.  Lobel’s piece really highlighted the real-world, emotional stakes and power in that click.

*There was a exhibit room about the other two pieces by Lobel and I was a little obsessed with both of them.  Or Else Your Friends Will Have To Do It is a project you participate in where you create your own playlist for your funeral.  Love Letters and Lehman Brothers involved Lobel cutting up the Lehman Brothers report that Grant was working on at the time of his death to recreate emails they had sent each other.  Lobel is definitely a fascinating artist and someone to keep an eye out for.  He is American but performs all over the world.  You can read more about him on his website.

**Unintentionally I ended up seeing this right after I Wish I Was Lonely and together they made for an interesting discussion of social media in our lives.