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Slap Me Through The Screen

Remote Control in Internet Participatory Performance

Claire Kwong



I face you. I beg you not to do it. But you do anyway – you type “hit” into the chat window. The machine I’ve set up punches me in the face. Hundreds of other people cheer you on. They beg you to do it. You face me.

In this paper, I investigate remote control in internet participatory performance. I focus on systems where one performer is watched by many online viewers. I will also focus on remote physical control, where viewers can physically affect the performer by doing something online.

Contextual Review

Participatory internet performance is a new genre facilitated by emerging network and physical computing technologies. These systems are often custom created by artists and technologists. Livestreaming is a relatively new technology, and has only recently proliferated as a form of entertainment on sites like Twitch. In addition to technical infrastructure, it also involves significant physical and emotional risk for the performer. As a result, there are a limited number of examples, and not much writing that addresses the genre as a whole.

I reviewed artworks that address different aspects of internet art, participation, performance, and remote control. I looked at live internet performance without remote control, like “No Fun” by Eva and Franco Mattes [1]. I looked at internet artworks which enable remote physical control of things, not people, like the Reddit forum “Take Care of My Plant” [2]. Finally, there is a history of audience control in analog performance, most famously with Marina Abramovic in works like “Rhythm 0” [3].

I also read texts about interactive and participatory art. Nicolas Bourriaud defines relational art, which constructs situations “where we can elaborate alternative forms of sociability” (Bishop 166). I see participatory online performance as an extension of relational aesthetics, even if it is not intended as artwork.

Much of the literature I read about online participatory environments focused on collaboration towards a collective goal [4]. This gave me insight about how participatory systems can create online communities, but I am investigating more complex modes of participation.

My Questions

How does remote viewing and physical control in internet participatory performance establish social structures? What kinds of viewer and performer relations do these systems enable? How can we design an interactive online performance to encourage alternative forms of relations?

I will analyze case studies through the theoretical frameworks of topology and postphenomenology.


“Domestic Tension” [5]

Domestic Tension

“Domestic Tension” was a networked durational performance by the artist Wafaa Bilal. Bilal developed the piece to confront people with the realities of life in a conflict zone, drawing on his experiences living through war in Iraq. In 2007, he locked himself in a cage for 30 days with a paintball gun controlled by online viewers. Audience members could shoot, turn the gun, and text chat with the artist and other viewers.

The audience exploited the simple affordances of “Domestic Tension” in emergent ways. Hackers wrote scripts to fire the gun repeatedly, which “turn[ed] the gun into a machine gun, firing nonstop automatically” (Bilal 78). On the other hand, a countermovement emerged calling themselves the Virtual Human Shield, which organized to turn the gun away from him. Bilal called this a form of “cyber political resistance” (Bilal 142).

Ice Poseidon

Ice Poseidon is the “most notorious of what are known as I.R.L. streamers,” according to a New Yorker profile by Adrian Chen (Chen). Paul Denino livestreams his physical life regularly for an eager community of viewers. During the time I wrote this paper, I watched Denino move from California to Texas.

Denino’s platforms Twitch and YouTube Live define the affordances of interaction, limiting audience behavior to text chat and donations. But Denino’s community of viewers have found ways of physically disrupting his life. A viewer may order Denino food delivery, an incident he highlights in his YouTube channel trailer. More disruptively, viewers regularly call SWAT teams to invade Denino’s home. This phenomenon is so widespread that it has its own term, “swatting.”

Denino makes enough money from donations to stream full time. Thus, viewers also control him financially: “the fact that fickle viewers are also a live streamer’s investors makes this balance more precarious than it is in perhaps any other form of entertainment” (Chen).

Remote Viewing

Topology is “the mathematical study of spatial properties that remain the same under the continuous deformation of objects” (L. Parisi 1). Theorists have applied this discipline towards cultural analysis. Actors become nodes, and the relations between them become connections that form a topological space. We can then analyze the social structures that these spaces create. Cultural practices of sorting and organizing serve “both to introduce new continuities into a discontinuous world by establishing equivalences or similitudes, and to make and mark discontinuities through repeated contrasts” (Lury 4).

As a topological framework, a participatory online performance is a network of nodes all pointing toward the artist. The capacity for telepresence collapses physical distance between the performer and their viewers. By streaming live video, performers reconfigure “spatio-temporal organization, that is, its articulation of presence, contingency and immediacy, or ‘liveness’” (Lury 8).

Still, technological borders exist between everyone involved. The user’s experience of the performer is always mediated through a web interface. Postphenomenology investigates how technology shapes our relations to the world. In hermeneutic relations, one form of technological mediation, “the user experiences a transformed encounter with the world via the direct experience and interpretation of the technology itself” (Rosenberger 17). Only the performer is visible through high definition video and sound. The rest are anonymous, able to communicate via text and remote action.

Celia Lury, Luciana Parisi, and Tiziana Terranova write that “network topology [constitutes] the space that increasingly defines the cultural dynamics of hyper-connected societies” (Lury 15). They relate this to social networks and the "‘borders’ or ‘frames’ (window, screen, mirror and interface) that mediate social and cultural experience” (Lury 7). Participatory internet systems rearrange social structures, creating new ways of relating to each other. These artworks are reconfigurations of technological ways of looking.

Deborah Lupton writes that “watching in everyday life, frequently undertaken using digital technologies, has become normalized as a life-practice” (Lupton 33). More specifically, she defines synoptic veillance as “social and other forms of watching which involve the many watching the few” (Lupton 37). She notes that this form of interactive watching is endemic to social media sites. Finally, she writes that surveillance is “central to the establishment and maintenance of borders” and “involves a kind of social sorting” (Lupton 144). Networked performance sorts people into watchers and watched. Bilal explicitly objectified himself as an Iraqi in his performance, and this racial dynamic added another border between him and his audience.

Ice Poseidon SwattedIce Poseidon Swatted

Ice Poseidon getting swatted [6]

Remote Control

Through remote physical control, a viewer’s visual and physical capacities are augmented across time and space. Robert Rosenberger and Peter-Paul Verbeek write that “when a technology is ‘embodied,’ a user’s experience is reshaped through the device, with the device itself in some ways taken into the user’s bodily awareness” (Rosenberger 14). If a gun is already a technological augmentation of a hand, remote control further augments it at a distance. Even if the viewer doesn’t physically feel the action, they can see its effect on live camera.

Nishat Awan uses the term power topologies “to describe the ability of actors to affect places across distance and proximity” (Awan 312). She describes humanitarian aid as a form of remote action, portraying places in crisis that “can be influenced from afar with the click of a button” (Awan 325). This topology of digital witnessing sets up viewers as empowered and the viewed as victims.

In participatory systems, viewers are empowered to act upon the performer, but the performer circumscribes the actions they can take. Because of the physical distance, viewers are limited in what they can do: their actions are either defined by the artist as part of the system, or through other remote infrastructure like swatting.

Jane McGonigal defines the “infinite affordances” of pervasive games, where “players can use any property in their environment to conduct infinite variations of game moves” (Montola 18). We see this in Domestic Tension when viewers exploit the simple affordances of shooting and turning a gun into hacked rapid fire and a movement for peace. Rosenberger and Verbeek explain the similar postphenomenological concept of multistability. They write that "technology at once in part determines our choices and actions, and yet at the same time itself remains open to our manipulation and interpretation” (Rosenberger 17). Agency around a technology is prescriptive, but viewers can choose to follow or subvert the rules.

A live networked performance with remote control has a lot of interface similarities with a video game. This is a form of sedimentation with online gaming interfaces, a user's “individual long-developed bodily perceptual habits” with a technology (Rosenberger 30). Both Bilal’s and Denino’s audiences come from gaming communities, which are vocally dominated by young white men. To these audiences, the act of shooting or swatting a real person may feel just as impersonal as a video game.

Remote control can also enable disruptive violence that viewers would not be inclined to do if they weren’t seeing the person affected live. Chen writes that “swatting has exploded in popularity in recent years, owing in part to the rise of live streaming… if the target is broadcasting himself live, the hoaxer can see his handiwork play out in real time” (Chen). Again, liveness collapses topological distance.

David Parisi writes that our technological experience of touch is circumscribed by device capabilities: flat surfaces and vibrating phones. He describes this as the “touchscreen’s homogenization of previously diverse sites of physical interfacing” (D. Parisi 44). In remote control, touch becomes an instrument, translating human impulse into mechanical contact. This is the inverse of Parisi’s argument – a flat touch creates physical consequences from a distance. The remote act of clicking or typing is blunt, and the effects must be strong enough to be visible from a webcam. The crudeness also comes from the control itself: if a gun can only turn and shoot, all actions must emerge from those controls. Thus, remote control flattens physical touch and biases it toward extremes – whether it’s throwing money at a problem or shooting someone in the face.

Remote Subjectivity

Postphenomenology “investigate[s] how, in the relations that arise around a technology, a specific ‘world’ is constituted, as well as a specific ‘subject’” (Rosenberger 31). Here, the subject is a person interacting with an online participatory system, which becomes part of their world.

Rosenberger and Verbeek discuss alterity relations, where “we encounter a device as itself a presence with which we must interrelate” (Rosenberger 18). This adapts the phenomenological concept of other, the “special experience of engaging with another human being” (Rosenberger 18). There are real people on the other side of the screen – the visible performer, and masses of other anonymous viewers. But per hermeneutic relations, the viewer can only interact with them through the technology, as if other people were part of the technology. In this way, it’s easier to objectify other people. Both Bilal and Denino are objectified by their viewers: the systems are set up so that viewers act, and the performer is acted upon.

From a topological perspective, screens also allow people to find themselves ‘’simultaneously on the side of the subject and on the side of the object’ (Lury 8). Bilal writes that “the moving body speaks to the viewer in a corporeal language on a purely physical level of unconscious identification and interactivity” (Bilal 21). Audiences do empathize with performers after spending time watching them. Viewers can also be protective of Denino: in an interview with Chen, he insisted that his viewers “just want me to do well." [7]

In participatory systems, the performer and viewer both retain a level of agency. Bilal writes that the human element of his performance “insert[ed] an element of chaos into otherwise perfectly controlled technology… they could attack me, but not ultimately control me” (Bilal 22). He writes about an incident where a viewer is shooting at him:

“I look straight at the webcam and – typing into the chat room – say, ‘Hey, Columbus, I am having dinner and your paintballs are falling into it.’ He types back, ‘Ouch, sorry about that,’ and he stops shooting. He tells me his name is Luke.” (Bilal 78)

By the “power of communicating human being to human being,” both Bilal and the viewer recognize the mediated other as a conscious person (Bilal 78).

Both Bilal and Denino have spoken about the adverse psychological effects they have experienced from hypervisibility and remote control. Denino is open about his mental illnesses, and his viewers often try to exploit them. Chen writes that “as Denino developed an online following, he became more isolated in the real world” (Chen). One day, Bilal has an emotional breakdown and disconnects the gun, but he feels a sense of responsibility to keep his project going.

Remote Community

The communities that these systems create are important in influencing viewer behavior. Bilal writes that anonymity encourages cruelty. Because viewers are anonymous and they act from a distance, they can feel empowered to act violently. A mob mentality encourages people to be callous, and this only magnifies with the mediation of the internet. Ice Poseidon’s viewers physically aggravate him not just to torment him, but for the entertainment of other viewers. A user who initiates a remote action also becomes a performer.

At the same time, crowds can generate “collective intelligence" and community organization (Montola 38). The emergence of the Virtual Human Shield demonstrates the power of the masses to organize toward a goal. Bilal notes that “while Domestic Tension draws out the misanthropic and brutal elements of cyber culture and human nature, it also highlights the ways in which the internet has become a forum of community resistance and empowerment” (Bilal 143).


Mockup of “Remotely Touch Me.”

Remote Tenderness

As I research this paper, I wonder whether remote control in participatory online environments always has to be blunt and extreme. I want to explore a broader range of physical touch. Is it possible to enable alternative modes of remote control that allow more nuance?

As a performance artist who uses my body as part of my work, I wonder if I could bring a feminist perspective to the male-dominated world of remote control – one with less violence and more care. I’ve devised a speculative participatory performance titled “Remotely Touch Me.” Viewers would be able to touch me by pressing a button, causing a glove I wear to vibrate and tighten. In this way, I would embody the technology and my connections with others.

I would livestream myself performing a difficult physical or emotional situation. A physical example could be running a marathon. An emotional one could be telling a painful story from my life. I would talk to the audience, telling them what I’m feeling physically and emotionally, and aiming to make them empathize with me. Because a common goal can mobilize viewers to act, the audience could help me succeed by touching me, reminding me that people are supporting me live from a distance.

I was drawn to this method of touch because it can be used in multistable ways. A light touch could be a gentle handshake, a tight one could be a supportive squeeze, a continuous one would mimic the intimacy of holding my hand. This would simulate the physical and social dimensions of touching hands in real life. Importantly, touching my hand won’t hurt me, limiting the potential for abuse.

My project could still invite harassment, particularly because I am an Asian woman and online communities can be racist and sexist. But it could also enable genuine human connection. If a friend from far away watched me, the technology would enable them to hold my hand. Anonymity and distance could even increase the amount of touch, because we may not put up the social boundaries we do in our physical lives.


In this paper, I’ve discussed remote viewing and remote action in participatory internet performance from the frameworks of topology and postphenomenology. I looked at how technical affordances give rise to social structures. I investigated why remote control tends toward blunt, disruptive extremes, and tried to imagine a more nuanced alternative.

In the future, I may realize the speculative performance I’ve devised. However, networked participatory performance involves significant technical and emotional work. It also takes work and uncertainty to build an audience for participatory art. After analyzing "Domestic Tension" and Ice Poseidon, I’m not sure I’m brave enough to carry out a remote controlled performance.

At the same time, livestreaming is proliferating in our culture on a smaller scale. Platforms like Instagram make it easy to go live for a short time. There may not be many examples of remote physical control, but one can argue that remote psychological control is more widespread. Clicking like on someone's Facebook post can give them a shot of dopamine from afar. After all, the vibration of a cell phone, caused by someone interacting with you, is still a form of remote physical control.



[1] Mattes, Eva and Franco. “No Fun.”

[2] Wood, Tyler Jay. “Take Care of My Plant.”

[3] Abramovic, Marina. “Rhythm 0.”

[4] Krysa, Yoasia, editor. Curating Immateriality: The Work of the Curator in the Age of Network Systems. Brooklyn: AUTONOMEDIA, 2006.

[5] “Domestic Tension.” Rhizome.

[6] “IcePoseidon Swatting Compilation.”

[7] “No More Secrets. | Interview: Net Worth, Twitch Ban, Racism, Depression.”

Annotated Bibliography


Awan, Nishat. "Digital Narratives and Witnessing: The Ethics of Engaging with Places at a Distance." GeoHumanities, 2:2, 2016, pp. 311-330.

Awan explains power topology through places in crisis that have become increasingly visible through the use of digital technologies. There is a clear power imbalance between the privileged people wielding this technology, and their depiction of these places as being in conflict.

Awan describes a form of remote action through “us[ing] technology as a proxy through which to administer aid” (Awan 4). This sets up a remove between first world viewers and the people they are supposedly helping. This is remote action in the sense of acting from a distance, but is not as immediate or physical as the actions I’m exploring.

The visualization also involves a degree of performance. In analyzing “Clouds Over Sidra,” a virtual reality narrative of a Syrian refugee, Awan writes that “[t]his work places the burden of proof on the refugee, in this case a twelve-year-old girl, who has to show us her destitution and her will in the face of it; she has to perform it” (Awan 5). Though it’s not as direct as what I’m investigating, remote viewing of humans may always involve some form of performance.

I found many of Awan’s concepts about topology to be relevant to my project. However, the systems she describes serve a very different purpose from the participatory internet artworks I’m researching. There is no longer a clear sociological power difference, as all people involved have access to internet streaming technologies. The power topologies I explore are more subtle.


Bilal, Wafaa and Kari Lydersen. Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2008.

In Shoot an Iraqi, Wafaa Bilal provides a first person narrative of both his time performing “Domestic Tension” and his earlier life in Iraq. I found that Bilal’s perspective as both interface designer and performer was invaluable. He writes about his rollercoaster of emotions, saying that “the event itself is the artwork, and the emotions it releases become a direct part of the work” (Bilal 42).

Bilal intersperses his experience of performing “Domestic Tension" with stories from his early life in war-torn Iraq. The context for his performance is the time period after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, where American culture demonized Iraqis as other.

Bilal writes both from a scholarly distance, analyzing the project for its technological and sociological implications, and as a performer directly involved, writing about his emotional breakdowns and relations with other people. He also explains the technology behind his apparatus of remote viewing and control.

This piece is very pertinent to my project because it involves both remote viewing and remote action. It shows many kinds of emergent viewer behavior, from malicious to peaceful.

The one problem I found with this text was that Bilal may have been too involved and thus biased, observing his project literally from the inside. But I found the book an invaluable counterpoint to the many third-person observations I read.


Rosenberger, Robert and Peter-Paul Verbeek, editors. Postphenomenological Investigations: Essays on Human-Technology Relations. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2015.

The chapter “A Field Guide to Postphenomenology” was a comprehensive introduction to postphenomenology for me. Rosenberger and Verbeek clearly lay out Don Ihde’s four basic forms of technological mediation: embodiment relations, hermeneutic relations, alterity relations, and background relations. They illustrate these concepts with clear examples from particular technologies. These technologies have quite basic and clear utilities, like eyeglasses and cell phones. This simplicity helps the authors make clear points, but I sought to analyze internet participatory platforms, a much more multifaceted technology.

I found embodiment relations and alterity relations most relevant to my project. Embodiment is relevant because remote viewing and control augments a user’s bodily capabilities. Alterity is relevant because the technology filters connections with other people, making the viewer the subject and the performer the object.

I noticed that other people were absent from the authors’ analysis. The relation is always between I, the technology, and the world. When discussing alterity relations, Rosenberger and Verbeek allude toward the experience of encountering another person as an other, but only talk about how devices can simulate that encounter.


Reference List


Awan, Nishat. "Digital Narratives and Witnessing: The Ethics of Engaging with Places at a Distance." GeoHumanities, 2:2, 2016, pp. 311-330.

Bilal, Wafaa and Kari Lydersen. Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2008.

Bishop, Claire, editor. Participation. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2006.

Chen, Adrian. "Ice Poseidon’s Lucrative, Stressful Life as a Live Streamer." The New Yorker, 7 Sep. 2018.

Krysa, Yoasia, editor. Curating Immateriality: The Work of the Curator in the Age of Network Systems. Brooklyn: AUTONOMEDIA, 2006.

Lupton, Deborah. Digital Sociology. Abingdon: Routledge, 2014.

Lury, Celia, Luciana Parisi, and Tiziana Terranova. “Introduction: The Becoming Topological of Culture.” Theory, Culture & Society, 29(4/5), 2012, pp. 3–35.

Montola, Markus, Jaakko Stenros and Annika Waeren. Pervasive Games: Theory and Design. Boca Raton: CRC Press, 2009.

Parisi, David. Archaeologies of Touch: Interfacing with Haptics from Electricity to Computing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018.

Parisi, Luciana. “Digital Design and Topological Control.” Theory, Culture, and Society, Vol. 29(4/5), 2012, pp. 165–192.

Rosenberger, Robert and Peter-Paul Verbeek, editors. Postphenomenological Investigations: Essays on Human-Technology Relations. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2015.