Bizarre Evening with Doug Coupland at the Waldorf Hotel

July 20, 2011

My writer pal Aislinn Hunter and I attended an event on May 26 at the Waldorf in Vancouver, the recently yuppified (in the new, hip, retro way) old watering hole of the neon palm-tree sign on the only side of the railway tracks. The event was billed as: “Douglas Coupland—Marshall McLuhan—YouTube,” and since it offered both free admission and Doug Coupland, the line of beautiful, arty, nerdy older youth and middle-aged, smarty-pants hipsters extended well past the used-car lot and around the corner. About a third were turned away in the spitting rain with the promise of a second coming.

It took an hour to cram two hundred to three hundred people into the basement room, but only fifteen minutes to worm one’s way to the bar for drinks.

The evening started with Coupland wearing what he called his “Madonna” headset, sitting on the stage behind a laptop connected to two large screens. He spoke briefly about how Marshall McLuhan had envisioned the internet before it had been created, then screened a couple of YouTube videos of McLuhan speaking (one an interview with Peter Gzowski) while interjecting with ironic asides and interior responses.

Two things immediately felt new to me: One, watching Coupland move the cursor to the address line on the big screen and try to key in a URL, make a mistake, and correct it, was publically witnessing what is normally a private moment, like seeing someone brush their teeth, or throw their dirty laundry in the washing machine. There was an intimacy and familiarity to it, like a small intake of breath.

Two, the evening was a reversal of cocooning, yet not a return to what went before, like watching movies in theatres. Instead, we were publically, communally watching a medium we usually watch alone or at most share with a couple of friends. And we were watching in the company of our own cultural celebrity, who shared his interior commentary with us in a kind of YouTube-viewing experience parallel to the way e-books will soon enable us to read a book with an overlay of our favourite author’s marginalia.

Coupland had a list of popular YouTube videos he’d scratched down on a napkin at dinner with friends, and he also took suggestions from the crowd. The list of videos screened, though not comprehensive, was something like this:

– aqua dumps

– Ham Face Girl

– biggest mullet dude

– trailer for tsunami movie

– cool, artistic remix of above with music

– The Human Centipede trailer

– Honey Badger

– Cops vs Clowns

– Sexy Sax Man

For a time we, as a collection of people in one large room, were engaging in a shared conversation about our culture, “outing” the private consumption of YouTube videos, laughing together, being grossed out together, but very quickly Coupland went basically silent and we lost any access to what he was thinking. This had the effect for me of feeling like he was either trying to hold a mirror up to me/the crowd, a mirror in which his reflection was not included, or that he was staging the event in some way as research for a future novel.

A good portion of the audience became puzzled, some started texting on their phones or surfing the net. Some shouted out, “Boring,” to which Coupland’s response, “Some things in life are boring,” though truer than ever as our attention spans atrophy and shrink and we rely on quick-content fixes to keep us interested, shut down the dialogue rather than opened it up. The crowd deteriorated somewhat into what Coupland had earlier referred to as “a peanut gallery,” but only because we needed more focus from the stage.

Aislinn and I left at the point when we realized that even if Coupland pulled a unifying theory or observation out of the bag, we would feel manipulated. I asked a couple of fellow audience members if they’d mind emailing me at the end of the evening to tell me what happened, which they were happy to do, and then we scooted.

One was a young woman, Olga Alexandru, a writer starting out in her career, who sent a direct, unguarded picture:

Well it just got a lot worse, to be honest. He finally did stop playing YouTube videos long enough to speak, but what came out were incoherent ramblings. He kept calling everything we had watched “bullshit” but gave no reason as to why. He made us watch a video from the Japanese earthquake and subsequent tsunami, which was beyond horrifying. He just kept shaking his head and saying, “Tragic.” He said at random intervals how smart we all were and how “we are doing something that has never been done in the universe” by being here and watching videos together. (Um, hello, Doug? It’s called Friday night for most teenagers.) He put a call out for an inspirational video and we ended up watching some cartoon with Donald Duck and Glenn Beck. Then he started rambling about Vancouver and how lucky we are to live in this city because we have so many things that other places don’t. At this point (10:30 p.m.), I muttered a “Fuck off, Doug,” and walked out. Well, that’s my two cents. It was nice meeting you and your friend.

The other was a tall, stocky man with a beard and a cool hat. His name was Corey Stavin, also a blogger and a writer, and he sent me a more circumspect response, possibly a draft for a blog. He called the evening “A digital improv of shared sound bites, a condensed book club, per say, an online campfire,” and concluded:

I felt Douglas played his role as facilitator rather well. The audience, including me, was initially anticipating more performance that would have provided more of his own focused opinion and viewpoints. It was free form in the making and, like Douglas said, sometimes things can be boring. Generally people experience enough of this by themselves and go out intending not to experience what they can readily achieve alone. An interactive event may not be the best place to expect being entertained without putting forth one’s own effort. The boredom was the audience experiencing themselves, waiting to be led and entertained by a respected intellectual with celebrity status. Heck, that’s why we go to concerts, and events. Still, being grateful, as this night was completely free, and I had no expectations in return for my time. I was prepared to pay cover. I’ll never know if the show would have been more polished if I had, since it was really about the collective. By the time he gave his summation, the audience’s attention had diminished, which he passively commented on too.

I appreciated Coupland’s willingness to take a risk and try something new. He is rumoured to be a shy person, and it didn’t look easy being up there on stage. The idea of an evening watching YouTube videos collectively is nifty, but to satisfy an audience, which may not have been Coupland’s goal, the commentary over the Madonna headset would have to engage with the content on the screen more publically. Perhaps he simply went introspective.

Coupland’s evening, random and bizarre though it was, made me start a spontaneous global-village conversation with a couple of audience cohorts and reminded us all that although we may be alone in separate rooms in front of the white glow of our computer screens, we are all watching together.