Review: Chris Goode ‘Hippo World Guestbook’
16th June 2007
Toynbee Hall Court Room
Part of Artsadmin’s Summer Season
While the argument rages about the relative merits of MySpace and Facebook, Chris Goode wants to draw your attention to another internet community. The Hippo World guestbook (http://members.aol.com/HippoPage/intro.htm) is a message board for those who visit the site, which describes itself as ‘devoted to all fans, fanciers, and aficionados of Hippopotamus amphibius’. Like other internet communities, this one attracts users from all walks of life, who discuss a range of subjects sometimes – but not always – connected to hippopotamuses. Goode’s sixty minute performance is a reading of some of these posts, which he recites verbatim.
Chris Goode’s introduction primes us for the narrative arc of the messages. Arranged as if in three acts, with short musical interludes, the opening tone is one of enthusiastic appreciation (“I wish that people could have hippos as pets!”), which moves into conflict (“I hate hippos and I hate you”), and ends with that sure sign of a website’s demise – uncontrolled spam. Perhaps this is a metaphor for the way communities are built, cherished and destroyed as a whole. The ultimate objet trouvee, then, the Hippo World guestbook stands for how societies find and lose their meaning.
Except it’s not quite as simple as that. Obviously, there is no set pattern to the way people communicate, or if there is, it’s not reflected in this site. While Goode’s performance certainly has a beginning and an end, there is little to define the middle of his promised story. Messages from people who are hippo fans sit alongside messages from people who are not hippo fans, and the exchanges occasionally descend into childish conflict (“I hate hippos … They suck! They suck!”), homophobic taunts (“Hippos are gays and all who like hippos are gays and lesbians”) and complete irrelevance. In fact, rather than documenting the rise and fall of a vibrant community, Hippo World guestbook is at its most interesting when it becomes clear how tangential it is to the lives of its contributors. The user called ‘Big Heart Hippo’, for instance, leaves the group with a revealing entry: “I used to check up on the message board frequently, but now I don’t. My parents told me my e-mail might be traced and the bad language was getting on my nerves. Oh well.” It is not the story of the site that becomes interesting, but the hinted at stories of its visitors away from the screen.
Here in the dark of Toynbee Hall’s woodlined Court Room, reading from a lectern under spotlight, however, Chris Goode displaces these tangential posts and treats them like the weighty missives they were never meant to be. He earnestly recites acronyms and spelling mistakes, and adheres to the web convention – as he points out – that capitals means shouting. While Goode has culled messages to fit the sixty minute time frame, he has tried to be representative of the mood as a whole, and reads out the chosen messages in full. If the posts have been transferred in time and place, he would argue, they have not been transferred in authorship. This kind of editing would be condescending, he says – either in the presumption that he could ‘correct’ the posts, or that he should accentuate their eccentricities.
And yet there is definitely something anachronistic about his reading of these messages. For those of us who did not grow up with the internet and texting, it still seems strange that written communication can be this casual. But the – mainly teenage – users of the Hippo World site clearly thought of their messages that way. Perhaps it is this age difference between the people Goode quotes and the people he performs to that makes the humour seem slightly cruel. Lol, gtg and other text speak are easy targets for the well educated, urban folk at Toynbee Hall. There is little danger, either, of us falling into the trap of becoming naturalised to the racist and homophobic undertones of some of the messages. They are written in a language that people over a certain (young) age neither use nor accept, but it is one that any internet user will recognise. Perhaps Hippo World guestbook raises an interesting point about the tolerance for these statements on the net, but it doesn’t foster any link between its audience and the people who wrote the posts. This distance does not threaten to change anyone’s minds.
On the other hand, perhaps Goode’s show is a fitting way to continue the site. The posts’ displacement into this setting works in tandem with their intended irreverence, and not against it. And the downright silliness of Goode’s endeavour is a light hearted match for the way the site sits on the edges of its contributors’ lives.
Despite the undeniable presence of Chris Goode’s own authorship, there is enough that feels communal about Hippo World guestbook to save it from being arch or ironic. Not only does Goode read the messages of an internet community, he also depends on the audience’s communal understanding of this phenomenon for humour and effect. He takes the normally solitary pursuit of surfing the net and drags it into a shared environment, replacing the online community with an embodied one. Whether you feel he does this with affection or, at times, a little too much cruelty, probably depends on your own relationship with the web.
Written by Mary Paterson
For more info on Chris Goode see