This Man Is Turning Data Centers Into the New Off-Broadway

Artist Tyler Coburn's "I'm that angel" is a closet drama about content farming and the cloud held in data centers worldwide.

Feb 2 2015, 10:35pm

​Tyler Coburn performed "I'm that angel" in Bahnhof, Stockholm, in 2013. Photo via Tyler Coburn and Bahnhof

Since 2012, ​New York artist Tyler Coburn has been performing in data centers across Europe and the United States. His closet drama I'm that angel follows the existential rumination of a fictional content farmer. He moves from the city to his parents' house before settling on a content farm and becoming a data server himself.

Coburn's latest performance—his first in Canada—was held in Toronto earlier this month.

Before floor to ceiling bay windows overlooking downtown Toronto and a calm Lake Ontario waterfront, Coburn read a section of I'm that angel to ten guests seated around a large conference table. Performances of the text—meant to be read aloud to a small audience, and for which the artist has occasionally hired an actor to read in his stead—are staged in data centers to facilitate an earthly, physical encounter with the seemingly ubiquitous cloud. But despite their best efforts, Coburn and his curators were unable to convince any data centers in Toronto to open their doors.

EvoSwitch, in Haarlem, Netherlands, where Tyler Coburn performed I'm that angel in June. Photo via Tyler Coburn and EvoSwitch

Instead, they settled on a room in a Rigus facility, a company that rents offices on a top floor of the TD Canada Trust tower by the month, the week and the hour—similar, at least, to how giants such as Amazon and Google rent servers in the cloud. Corburn, acting as the play's narrator, orates in a frenzy of semiotic anxiety, puzzling over his relationship to the distant, sprawling server farms on which today's internet is built.

Coburn is highly conscious of the many ways in which our humanity is becoming enmeshed with technology—and with I'm that angel he has created a character that reflects on these anxieties, unsure where the separation exists between work and life, body and machine, self and cloud.

Many of us are chained to our computer screens around the clock, and it is often difficult to determine exactly when work stops and leisure begins.

In the performance's first act the character is thrilled to write articles about trending topics, shaping his identity around the bits of pop culture, celebrity gossip, and current events he parses from the cloud. There's the birth of biopolitics and the spirit of capitalism, Twitter memes, Bitcoin, and the slog of social media posts— consumer services and cyber refuse that swirl around the cloud's aether floor.

Actor Justin Sayre reads i'm that angel at Google in New York in 2013. Photo: Jessica Bennett/Tyler Coburn

"Here's the beauty of my situation. There's not a minute in the day when I can't stream something into my head. If there's a job for a technocrat in my constantly moving happiness machine then I filled it. I've become the administrator of my input. I'm pure receptacle," the narrator soliloquizes in I'm that angel.

But eventually, the pressure of thinking all the time, and the never ending process of pulling information out of the cloud and pouring content back in, overwhelms him. He begins to wonder what it means to have a body if everything he does is online.

In the last section of the book, he gives in, merging with the cloud by allowing his brain to become a data server.

"Ultimately the character decides that the anxiety of that sort of boundlessness, and of the diffuseness of the cloud itself as a form, is less preferable to becoming a data server and having the certainty of knowing your place in the world," Coburn told Motherboard in an interview.

The printed version of I'm that angel was designed by Eric Nylund. Photo via Tyler Coburn

Throughout the 35 minute performance, his voice rose and fell. At times Coburn's string of hectic thoughts were difficult to follow. At others, the hypnotic flow of his delivery brought the quick-witted content-farmer to life.

Coburn's difficulty gaining access to a data center in Toronto is not unusual. In the past his inquiries have been met with everything from suspicion to hospitality. Some companies required full bio-scans for access, while others gave him his own passkey to come and go as he pleased.

He has performed I'm that angel in both anonymous, nondescript buildings and lairs resembling the most extravagant of James Bond sets. The Rigus facility was certainly the former—a sterile office with anonymous abstract paintings on the walls, a flip chart and a couple conference phones. Secretaries and businessmen murmured outside the room's glass doors. In this drab setting, I'm that angel made it clear how much everything one does on the internet is like sitting in an office, but serving the mega corporations that control the cloud.

While the artist's previous installations and performances have responded to cultural changes with narratives about immaterial labor, subjectivity formation and technological mediation, I'm that angel makes us aware of how the information we store on the cloud actually exists physically. After each performance, he tries to organize a tour.

The intent, however, isn't to make visible the cloud's infrastructure, or to show us how it works. "I really thought about it being less about access, because we already exist in the cloud, and more about finding the conditions by which one could effectively re-encounter one's data in a physical form," Coburn said.​

EasyStreet Online Services Data Center in Beaverton, Oregon. Photo: Lincoln Barbour/Tyler Coburn and EasyStreet Online Services

Rather, in visiting the data center, "your understanding of the whole scalability of the internet becomes somehow more pronounced," Coburn has observed. "You become more sensitive to how no single site, no single data center can do the explanatory work. No one can be the exemplar of the network."

I'm that angel has been published as a book, and Coburn's policy is to only read once in any given city. He prefers his performances not to be mediated in any way, so there is no documentation. They are recorded only in the memories of those who participate.

Similarly, a physical relationship with our data can only ever exist in our minds. We may never really know how many servers hold our data, nor where across the planet our digital selves are stored.​