Diagram this Dialogue

AOL Instant Messenger enters the arena of performing art

Projecting a live Instant Messenger (IM) conversation onto a ten-foot screen can be an intellectual exercise. Well, at least according to the organizers of “Addressing Dialogue,” a graduate student conference sponsored by the Harvard Department of English and American Literature.

According to conference co-organizer and self-professed IM junkie Seo-Yeong J. Chu, “Instant Messenger Dialogue: An Experimental Performance” was meant to be an exploration of “the instant-messaged word” in relation to the written word and the spoken word.”

The performance consisted of Chu and another graduate student, Gabriella Gruder-Poni, literally having an IM conversation—only one that was shown on a giant screen and in front of an audience. Before the instant-messaging could begin, however, a lot of spoken words had to be thrown around—Chu first gave a crash course in messaging to IM newbie Gabriella Gruder-Poni. Amidst audience protests that “this is against the rules,” Chu vocally prompted Gruder-Poni to “press send.” Finally signed on to AOL’s Instant Messenger service, the two stared intently at their laptop screens and began discussing Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Map.”

While there was only the soft clickety-click of the keyboard and tri-tone IM sound alerts to interest the ears, the seventeen-plus audience did not, however, fall asleep. “You’ve certainly brought back the exclamation mark,” one audience member’s comment at the end of the presentation, accounts for the many chuckles at Chu’s copious use of exclamation marks and Gruder-Poni’s decision to follow suit. But the crowd wasn’t just paying attention to punctuation: in typical academic and literary tradition the audience over-analyzed every aspect of the thirty-minute session, including the power dynamic inherent in the way that the computer screens were set up.

Rapid typing on the part of Chu, whose blown-up screen allowed the audience to follow every deleted word, was interspersed with the occasional reply or comment from Gruder-Poni. The red of “DialogueSYJChu” definitely out-performed the blue of “Dialogue GGPoni” on the electoral map of the IM screen. Though Chu had posited the possibility of “instant-messaging as a medium of intellectual exchange” and an audience member had called it “a good way to brainstorm,” Gruder-Poni’s final conclusion was rather ironic. “It was less of a dialogue, and more stream-of-consciousness.” Eat your heart out, James Joyce.