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Defragging the self

Do computer processes connect up with the working of our own mind, our personality – and if so how? Defrag_ asks the question. Review by Corinna Lotz

Computing, artificial intelligence and their languages are weird and wonderful and sometimes scary. Expressions like “backing up” and “defragging” have entered the language as we busily purchase extra memory for our gadgets so we can store ever more information.

This might appear to the detriment of what makes us “human”. But it’s perhaps easy to forget that our computers are actually human creations, modelled on and modelling our own brains, feelings and individual personalities.

Writer-director-performer Tom Lyall’s penchant for the science fiction aesthetic allows him to move easily between the machine and the human. Defrag_ (yes that’s an underscore_) shifts dramatically in time from 2011 to a vision of a post-human future.

Inside the modest black box of Camden People’s Theatre, inches from the roar of traffic in Euston Road, his stream of consciousness takes us gently by the hand into a world that is both fantastical and intimate. Above all, it is a journey into the self.


Lyall demolishes the audience-actor antagonism and the illusion of theatre as he reflects on the all-too human desire to preserve things, including our own selves.

As we store more and more of ourselves on distributed systems – hard-drives on lap-tops, sim cards on mobiles, data-storage “clouds” – does this fragment us or, as this play suggests, help us gain a richer understanding of who we are and what constitutes the human experience?

Lyall sees back-up as “a protection against loss, which is, in human terms, futile. We lose everything in the end”. He turns familiar contemporary jargon inside out to question the nature of our relations with others, and who we are, in a witty and thought-provoking way:

“There are people who were ‘there for me’, as we used to say at the turn of the twenty-first century, but the involuted, restless, analytical mind can only ask: where is ‘there’, exactly? How do I get to it? And, more to the point, who is ‘me’? I wasn't who I had been. Was I?”

Do computer processes connect up with the working of our own mind, our personality – and if so how?

“I was afraid I was losing my mind,” Lyall’s character says.

“And I know it was reckless of me, but I hadn't been making regular back-ups. To stretch the metaphor: perhaps we do, in a way, keep back-ups of ourselves, in the hearts and minds of those near to us. Imperfect, highly compressed, frequently corrupted beyond recognition, but, at times of loss and crisis, when we forget who we are, we can, if we're lucky, turn to a friend to remind us how we are seen in another's eyes.”

Humanising our world is perhaps the greatest achievement of any form of art and Defrag_ is a valiant and moving exercise in this direction. Don’t miss it.

4 December 2012

Defrag_, the first solo work of Shunt associate artist and Chris Goode’s long-time collaborator Tom Lyall, is at the Camden People’s Theatre, until 15 December

It is co-directed by Tom Lyall and Wendy Hubbard, lighting design by Cis O’Boyle and co-produced with Just a Must company and Camden People’s Theatre and supported by Royal Victoria Hall Foundation, as part of the Futureshock Festival. Photos: Rachel Ferriman

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