Vesna: The world has been changing rapidly since the beginning of this year, right?
Simon: Yeah! I had my life, and last year I experienced how it feels to have a female body and it was beautiful and changed my relation to the digital. But, this year, with COVID-19, there is an acceleration of everything towards the digital, we are suddenly in a kind of vacuum, and we are all forced to spend more time surrounded by the digital technology, and I think that it is worrying.
Vesna: Theatre is also changing. Would you say that the change is permanent or temporary?
Simon: I don’t know much about theatre, but I think that it is evolving and that it will keep changing constantly. For me this is all surprizing, how radical it all is, how quickly you can shift from one paradigm of reality to another amazingly quickly. Yet another thing that is changing very fast is the accessibility of it all. A couple of years ago, it would have been impossible to do what I did for just a couple of hundred Euros, it would have cost millions; only Hollywood and big studios could do that. Now, with the evolution of computers, you have very powerful computers that can fit into your pocket, capable of performing crazy image manipulation, and that is evolving really fast, it has changed a lot even over this period since I started making this project.
Vesna: You did not enter this entire experience with an intention to make a performance. It was only after you have had this experience that you decided to turn it into a performance. What was your initial motivation, why did you do it in the first place?
Simon: I had a day job that was coming to an end and I was looking for a new job, and I thought, ok, if I have virtual reality in my CV, it will look good. So, I kind of started learning about virtual reality, following tutorials online, and that is how I started this project. By accident, actually. I should add that for me, this is not just a project, it is something that changed my life, now I am another person, and I think it’s wonderful. Also, I would like to share the experience. One of my statements is “be or accept what you are because it is beautiful”.
Vesna: Was it scary at the beginning?
Simon: No, I was thrilled from the first second! (laughs) It was, actually, yes, but just for a couple of seconds. It was quite frightening. It was as if a lightning struck me! It aroused powerful emotions in me, and a very strong physical reaction: I was sweating, my heart was racing, but then everything went naturally from there. And then when I started telling people about it, I felt great because I could relive it all over again, all the emotions and all the excitement. Everything was there again!
Vesna: One of the things that I learned through your performance and that I found truly surprizing is that although virtual reality is not a novelty but has existed for a very long time now, many issues related to it, legally for example, are still not settled. In the performance, you share with us the conversation you have had with a lawyer, but he doesn’t give you a definitive answer to any of your very clear questions, and openly says that he cannot be sure. Have you at least come to some definitive answer why there aren’t any definitive answers? Why is this segment not defined by legal system?
Simon: It is all really complicated and one of the major problems is the Internet. For example, for this performance, I have contacted Noelle Martin, who was a victim of a serious cyber harassment. She went to the police, but the police said: “No, the Internet is not in our country, that is not under our jurisdiction.” Some other people she asked for help even said: “It does not exist, if it happened on the Internet, it is not real”. And I think the first thing is to acknowledge that the Internet is real. In my opinion, there is no division between virtual reality and reality, because virtual reality is our reality now and you cannot just say, “no, no, the Internet is none of our business”. That is the first step. The next one is to make a legal system that can deal with something globally, and it is extremely complicated. I think it takes time, but the technology is much faster. There hasn’t been any crucial step in that direction yet. The only person who I know did something is Noelle Martin, who tells a bit of her story in my show. She was a victim of something terrible and nobody could help her. So, what did she do? She studied law and she managed to have a new law passed in Australia, a law that would protect people who went through the same thing as she. That was a huge inspiration for me to step up and talk about it.
Vesna: When I read about your performance, I was wondering why the woman you call Arielle F. did what she did, why she had her body scanned, and I was sure that it was for the money. But now that I’ve heard that she was paid only £70 for that, although the copies are available online for an unlimited time span, I was wondering what her motivation was.
Simon: Yes, I was also shocked when I heard the sum, yes. I knew that it was little money, but not that little. It’s an insult, really. What happened is that she is a member of a model agency in London that works only with students, and they send a lot of them to this studio to get scanned. It is really quick: you stand, they press a button and that’s it. It takes, like, ten seconds to have your body scanned. They never explained to her what was happening, and what the purpose of it all was. So, yes, in a way, she was also a victim of harassment.
Vesna: How do people react to the show? You played it in on stage before the pandemic, then online during the lockdown, and now again on stage. How would you compare those three periods in terms of the audience and how they reacted?
Simon: If I compare before lockdown and online, it’s very similar, but before lockdown and now, it is very different because of social distancing. There is a distance between people nowadays, and I can feel it really strongly. Before COVID-19, I would remain on stage and talk to the audience for a very long time, but now it’s awkward, you put on masks, and... it is how it is. You don’t know how to behave, if you should wear a mask, if you should take it off while you speak, if the mic or phone is contaminated, and so on.
Vesna: What are your plans? Are you going to keep exploring this area or are you going to try something totally different?
Simon: I think that with theatre, I have discovered something I really want to keep working on. I just love the direct connection with the audience. I built this project as a performance from the start, it was like a crash-test. It was beautiful because I got all the feedback and I loved that because it’s all about sharing, and in the end, you don’t remember anymore which idea came from whom and that’s amazing. I’m already working on a new project which is not related to virtual reality, but it is still related to the digital.
Interview led by: Vesna Radovanović