Adapting a classical text brings with it issues of anachronism, and questions of how we can make the text relevant today. This is amplified in a text such as Aristophanes’s The Clouds, in which technology features so heavily. Significant technological advances have resulted in a disjunction between classical and modern technology, and how they create meaning in the drama. As a result, we were faced with the interesting challenge of translating ancient technology to a contemporary audience, maintaining the spirit and function of the old without seeming anachronistic.
Working on communicating the ideas of hyperreality and technomimesis, my role focused on the character of the Data Mirror. This character, and the scenes in which it is involved, were lifted almost verbatim from another of Aristophanes’s plays, Thesmophoriazusae, in the early stages of the script:
Euripides: Don’t worry; you look charming. Do you want to see yourself?
Mnesilochus: Yes, I do; hand the mirror here.
Euripides: Do you see yourself?
Mnesilochus: But this is not I, it is Cleisthenes! (Thesmophoriazusae, 233-235)
The joke here is that, dressed up as a woman in order to infiltrate a women’s festival, Mnesilochus sees the effeminate Cleisthenes reflected back at him in the mirror. However, it also reveals a trait of the classical mirror that is fundamental to our presentation of technology in cloud 2020 incite – that of distortion.
Maria Gerolemou, the Classical Dramaturg for this project, tells us that ancient mirrors do not reflect the world objectively, being made not of glass but metal. This metal does not shine like a modern mirror, nor does it have a perfectly flat surface. As a result, it presents the user with a dim, distorted image (159). Reflecting and/or creating reality in a new way, mirrors were thus thought to disclose details otherwise hidden from sight. For instance, in his On Dreams, Aristotle suggests that ‘the organ of sight not only is acted upon by its object, but acts reciprocally upon it. If a woman looks into a highly polished mirror during the menstrual period, the surface of the mirror becomes clouded with a blood-red colour’ (459b28-30). This idea that mirrors can expose more than what is immediately visible to the human eye complicates its relationship with reality, creating a potential for new perspectives – including those that may be misleading or false.
This is where the idea of technomimesis – mimesis through technology – comes in. While the Platonian concept of mimesis is based on static imitation, Aristotle defines it as a more active creative process (Melberg 45). In cloud 2020 incite, this is how technology functions. It does not merely reflect or imitate reality, but rather takes reality and forms something new. Thus, it presents an unstable ‘hyperreality’ – one that the staff and students of the Cloud 2020 campus live by, but which Judith cannot reconcile with her own perception of reality.
Writing for audio meant that we could not rely on visual aids to underscore the unreliability of the Data Mirror – its surface could not be warped or pixelated. That is not to say that visual aids were not instrumental in our understanding of what the Data Mirror might be: Daniel Rozin’s interactive mechanical and software mirror art was particularly useful to me in visualising how technology can simultaneously imitate and distort, and his Mirror Number 9 (2003) was for a while how I visualised the Data Mirror – a patchwork of data somewhere between the human and the monstrous. It was also a useful visual aid for understanding mimesis as a reciprocal process, as the mirror reacts to the data inputted, consciously or not, by the user.
Visual aids aside, we sought to represent the Mirror’s tenuous relationship with reality by other, auditory means. While the Mirror may insist that ‘Self reflection is paramount’, Judith does not recognise what she sees. Significantly, her data double is not just her own, but also bears the imprint of her daughter, Phillipa, who has used her device for gambling. It is indiscriminate in the data it processes, invading the user’s most intimate and dark secrets without accuracy or nuance, posing a threat to both privacy and identity. Yet it can also be wiped in an instant, as we see with Judith and the student resistance. By presenting the listener with contradictory information, in a Data Mirror that is objective, all-seeing, and yet simultaneously inaccurate and disposable, we encourage the listener to reflect on the unreliability and instability inherent in technology – a concept that can be traced back to antiquity and, in particular, Aristophanes’s The Clouds.
Aristophanes. Birds. Lysistrata. Women at the Thesmophoria. Trans. Jeffrey Henderson. Loeb Classical Library 179. Harvard University Press, 2000.
Aristotle. On the Soul. Parva Naturalia. On Breath. Trans. W. S. Hett. Loeb Classical Library 288. Harvard University Press, 1957.
Gerolemou, Maria. “Plane and Curved Mirrors in Classical Antiquity.” Mirrors and Mirroring: From Antiquity to the Early Modern Period, eds. Maria Gerolemou and Lilia Diamantopoulou, Bloomsbury, 2020, pp. 157-164.
Melberg, Arne. Theories of Mimesis, Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Rozin, Daniel. “Interactive Art.” http://www.smoothware.com/danny.