World Building: From Biospheria to Melrose Space to Digital Ocean. Tactics to Strategies

Stenson, Edmund

Constance Penley began her talk by distinguishing between tactics and strategies, questioning the apparent incommensurability of the two terms. If the former represents a “seize the moment” attitude, then the latter, simply put, represents a more systematic, careful approach to political intervention. With the three interdisciplinary projects that she participated in, she hoped to show that there were ways of connecting the two terms.

Her first project was was based on the real-life exploits of two groups of men and women who lived inside the biosphere 2, which, according to a reputable source, was “the world's largest enclosed ecosystem. . . touted on its launch in 1991 as a "living art form" in addition to being a prototype Mars colony and a vehicle for investigating holistic theories of ecology. The project quickly became embroiled in controversy with the "discovery" by investigative journalists that the project's founders were not "real" scientists but rather a theater company/commune with alleged cult tendencies.” For two months in the year 2000, Penley participated in the creation of an online biosphere, where characters and events roughly mimicked those from the real-life Biosphere 2 experiment in the early '90s. The participants “lived” online for two months – though I am not entirely sure to what capacity – and posted diaries. What kind of world Penley helped to create, or how exactly the website interacted with and developed on the original biosphere 2 project I do not know, and it would have been interesting to hear more about the project.

Secondly, Penley discussed her contribution to a project entitled “Melrose Space”: what initially begun as a minor hack into the shiny soap-opera “Melrose Place” become a collaborative project in which around 100 artists and producers rewrote and reformulated the television show. Penley and her colleagues were given access to the show’s scripts so that they could “grid out” their response, and to develop art pieces that would interact with particular plotlines. This translated into the creation of props with not-so-secret messages – a pillow with a diagram of the HIV virus, a quilt with the formula for the controversial abortion drug R4, Chinese takeout bags with messages directed at the atrocities carried out at Tianemen Square – and the insertion of new characters. In the end, the material created for the show was auctioned off so that only the imaginary world of the television show was left behind. This was particularly important, given that the show continues to run outside of the United States.

If Penley's time at the Biosphere represented the expansion and mirroring of a hermetic world inside of our own, then her activities working on Melrose Place disrupted the stability of a pre-existing story world, revealing the cultural unconscious that lies beneath the surface of the most benign text. Does the fact that Penley and her colleagues received few complaints about what they were doing lessen the impact of their world-disruption? Or is this a case when the distinctions between production and consumption should be strictly maintained? It would be interesting to learn about how fans of the show were affected by this textual aberration.

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