The sense of presence: How does the use of media technology challenge the notion of live in performance art?
The question that led me to write this thesis has been to understand how the use of digital computing and the popularity of mobile smart phones are affecting live performance.
Last summer I was performing in an outdoor immersive theatre show of the film ‘Back to the Future’ in London, UK. It was part of a ‘live’ cinema event by Secret Cinema, who recreates the film to create a theatrical setting for the original movie to be screened within. On entering the event all audience members are asked to hand in their mobile phones for the duration of the show. On speaking with the Director, Fabian (xx) he insisted that it was less in the interests of censorship but more an attempt to acquire the full attention of their audiences. By handing in your phone, it makes a very clear division between the live, physical event and the screen of your smartphone. The gesture of handing in a mobile phone to encourage audiences to participate in the present and be undistracted by communicating with friends and family outlines the distinctive properties of performance that the live arts (in this case theatre) is threatened by. This no phone policy has become a poplar trend as musicians are requesting their audiences to give their undivided attention at music concerts. Last year, on her 35th anniversary tour, Kate Bush asked audience members to not use iphones and tablets so they could all ‘share the experience together’ (xx). These pleas by musicians all seem to indicate the importance of presence and attention when viewing their performance. Beyonce, for example, yelled directly at fan in the front row “You got to seize the moment. Put that damn camera down!’ (xx) and Roger Daltrey, the lead singer of The Who recently was quoted saying, "I feel sorry for them, I really feel sorry for them. Looking at life through a screen and not being in the moment totally – if you're doing that, you're 50% there, right? It's weird. I find it weird."(xx)
The focus on being in the moment and not allowing the phone to subtract from that signifies a sense of a presence that performance requires from its audiences. The importance of presence is clearly a core aspect of what makes performance live and distinguishable from other media. By musicians having to remind audiences the importance of this, what does this say about the state of technology and the condition of live performance? I will be exploring how technology has affected the conditions of performance by looking at specific works of performance art that use technology to challenge these pre-requisites of experiencing live events. The issues that musicians raise about being present and attentive open up a wider discussion on what live means and how technology subverts and disrupts this sense of liveness. The things that make performance unique are being threatened by the ubiquity, speed and influence of technology. I will situate this tension within the area of performance art which has a rich history of holding the values of live core to its art form. To put simply, the focus on bodily presence and a temporal occurrence that make the act of performance different from other media. The reason for looking at this subject within performance art is because since the beginning of the 20th century artists have persistently experimented with how technology alters their performances. The futurists dreamt of a mechanical theatre that did not require human actors and in the 60’s performance artists like Yves Klein used photographic documentation to challenge how media represents the live act. To investigate this, I will be looking at examples of performance art that use technology to challenge this issue regarding liveness. This history of technological based performances can situate the and further understand some of the problems that are indicated in the plea for audiences not to use their phone. Particular outcomes of the Internet and digital communication have affected how we experience live events in such a way that performance is in a crisis. Up until the past 10 years the distinction of live could be easily made between the original performance and the photograph or the video recording. However, in 2015, media and events are produced simultaneously and circulates online, on social media and on your smart phones. The temporal urgency of Web 2.0. and the portable present-ness of the smartphone, the idea of live, its temporal and physical condition are being reconfigured by these technologies. To put it simply, the technology has become more live than ever and how can performance respond to that? By looking at examples of performance art that explore these problems I will create an overview of a situation that cannot be adequately resolved by simply handing in your phone to enjoy the show.
Performance, like every other art form, is altered within the space of technology and as technology changes performance adapts with it. It is worth mentioning that performance is not alone in this tone towards mobile smart phones. After being unable to distinguish if someone was looking up information or taking a picture of an artwork there National Gallery has banned the use of smart phones and the use of selfie sticks. The apparent threat on our concentration, physical presence and attentiveness is being challenged head on by many art institutions. By looking specifically at live art and performance practices that hold presence and liveness as core to their work it becomes easy to relate these issues regarding the use of technology back into wider society. It is important to have this discussion now not simply to prevent more clumsy regulations from musicians and art institutions about what technology is or isn’t allowed. But to look into how some technological advances are disrupting our sense of human temporality and physical presence. The works I will discuss in this text use technology in such a way to question the importance of being physically present and being synchronous in the same time of an event. These questions have much wider implications about what it means to be human and how technology is affecting our sense of time and presence. I will argue, that these two elements, physical and temporal presence, are the core things that make something live. This liveness is now being infiltrated and imitated by new technologies causing friction between the live arts and technology. To substantiate this claim I will review the discussion on what constitutes live and to do this I will look at two writers Phillip Auslander and Peggy Phelan. Both writers’ present fertile ground for understanding why live is important and how performance’s relationship with technology has undermined the notion of live in performance. However, because both books were originally published in the 1990s there analysis of technology is what I call ‘playback’ media, photos, videos, and audio recordings that all become documentation after an event has taken place. ‘Playback media’ makes it easy to make a distinction between the original (live) and the secondary reproduction (media). All these media forms are now commonly compressed into bits of data that are circulated remediated online and on smart phones. The advances in computing speeds, the Internet and the mobility of smart phones make the distinction between live and not live harder to distinguish. This is key to why this discussion needs to be revaluated as the technology becomes more live what is still at stake in the physical presence of the ‘original’ event? The works that I present challenge how technology is used to communicate a performance within the live event and demonstrate how performance art has tested the limits of its own ontology within the use of certain technologies.
C2: Two texts
I will briefly introduce the two texts that will provide the main positions regarding the importance of live and the dispute between performance and technology, before going through they key points made in both texts. Phillip Auslander’s ‘Liveness: performance in a mediatized culture’ (1999) has been a key text to performance theorists and culture studies as it examines how media has infested all culture to a point that performance has become another reproducible text. Peggy Phelan is one of the founders of performance studies International and wrote ‘Unmarked: The politics of performance’ in 1993. She employs psychoanalysis and feminist theory to describe how representation affects the real.
‘Liveness: performance in a mediatized culture’ (1999) takes a broad look at performance, from rock concerts to legal trials, to demonstrate how media has invaded performance to the point that they are both ‘mutually interdependent’ (xx). The word liveness refers to the quality of a live experience of something happening at the same time. This definition I quoted from the Dead Media archive:
Liveness: The quality or condition (of an event, performance, etc.) of being heard, watched, or broadcast at the time of occurrence. (xx)
Liveness is a way of highlighting Auslanders position that recorded technologies bought live into being and that before records, radio, films and television everything was just live, there was no need to declare it as anything else. The mass media has always defined what live is by providing an alternative, for example television shows or music albums that say ‘live in front of a studio audience’ of ‘recorded live’. This is the prevailing trajectory Auslander takes to frame live as product of recording technologies and media, that technology bought live into existence.
This situation represents the historical triumph of mechanical (and electronic) reproduction (what I am calling mediatiaztion) and Benjamin implies: aura, authenticity, and cult value have been definitively routed, even in live performance, the site that once seemed the last refuge of the auratic' (2005: 70)
When Auslander uses the word ‘Authenticity’ he is referring to Walter Benjamin and ‘Art in the age of technical reproducibility’ (1936). Where the authentic, or the aura, is a sensation that is ‘outside of technical reproducibility’ (xx) that is based on the ‘premise of the original’ (xx) that cannot be recreated. Auslander uses this notion of authenticity to propose that all modes are performance is now mediated to a point where the original and the reproduction cannot be separated. I agree with the idea that technology can no longer be viewed as a reproduction or secondary to a performance because it is can be used to produce rather than reproduce.
Live performance now often incorporates mediatization to the degree that the live event itself is a produce of media technologies. (2005: 40)
This comment reflects the Secret Cinema event and their remaking of ‘Back to the Future’ (2014). Their performances recreate famous films to make a theatrical installation that the audience members can participate in and become part of the film. This cultural recycling can be seen as another mode of adaptation that has happened from theatre to TV, TV to Internet, the dominant broadcast medium engulfs and appropriates its former. Although technology and media are invading the live event and performance, this could be a benefit to live performance in contemporary culture. I do agree with Auslander that the affect of media and technology has become not only visible but changed performance but I’m not convinced that this is a negative concern. Adaptations have always occurred as texts are used in different art types and medias, to say that the live event is a produce of media technologies is far fetched. I would argue desire for the live event is related to the increased used of media but performance actually thrives from this rather than diminishing. Auslander’s use of the world mediatization refers to ‘electronic reproduction, In the next chapter I will present works that use technology to generate the work, and are by no means a tool of reproduction.
Peggy Phelan is one of the founders of performance studies International and wrote ‘Unmarked: The politics of performance’ in 1993. She employs psychoanalysis and feminist theory to describe how representation affects the real. Phelan says she is looking for a ‘theory of value’ (xx) that is created through the performative act that is rendered (in)visible by its very disappearance of being. ‘Unmarked’ describes performance as an act of absence and disappearance and its unique ontology that ‘performance’s only life is in the present’ (1993:146).
“Performance’s being, like the ontology of subjectivity proposed here, becomes itself through disappearance “ (1993:159)
It is at the other end of the spectrum from Auslander who says that live is a product of media; the live quality of performance is made through its disappearance rather than its reproducibility. It is an intriguing position, that there is something that only manifests through the ephemerality of performance that is disappearing into the past. I want to specifically look at chapter 7: ‘The ontology of performance: representation without reproduction’, where Phelan summarizes her view on the relationship between performance and technical reproduction. Phelan describes performance as under ‘pressure to succumb to the laws of the reproductive economy’ (1993:159). I want to pay particular attention to the way Phelan describes the temporal vulnerability of performance that it ‘plunges into visibility-in a manically charged present-and disappears into memory’ (1993:161) and later on in chapter 3 will discuss how the importance of now is a relic for both performance and communication technology. Phelan describes performance as the passing of time and the disappearance of bodily acts into memory. This she says makes performance unique and distinct from other media. “Performance art implicates the real through the presence of living bodies” (1993:148) Phelan asserts a traditional notion of the physical presence of the live performance. Phelan’s position on performance is based on bodies, physical presence and their acts disappearing into time. The presence of human beings and their ephermerality are two aspects I will explore in the next chapter.
Its helpful to look at where the are commonalities in their arguments to progress this discussion. Phelan does not explicitly use the word ‘liveness’ but she talks about disappearance being fundamental to the ontology of performance and that as soon as it is written or recorded it becomes something else. Liveness can be thought of as the absence of writing; it is something that is encoding and decoding simultaneously and continually being lost in the agency of time. I have noted that both writers define live in relation to what it is not, Auslander situates live in relation to media recordings and Phelan describes live acts through its disappearance. Actions and gestures are understood as live because of the absence of their recording, this is what makes live performance so valuable as it comes to existence through its disappearance. If Auslander defines live in relation to recording media and Phelan defines live in relation to mortality and an understanding of death, both analogies rely on an other or an alternative to validate live performance.
However although they both employ an ‘other’ to present their view of live performance, the use of media, representation and technology divides their views. This is made obvious in their debate around weather performance art is outside of the economics of reproduction. To put it in their own words, Phelan writes ‘Performance’s independence from mass reproduction, technologically, economically, and linguistically, is its greatest strength’ (1993:162) while Auslander directly responds to Phelan in his book saying that it is naïve to think that any ‘cultural discourse can stand outside the ideologies of capital and reproduction’ (1999:45). I want to question weather performance art is still outside of the circulation of reproduction, to do this I will discuss three technological changes that seemingly turn performance into (another) reproducible media. Starting with video streaming and looking at web 2.0. to I will look at how temporally live technologies have challenged performance. Then I will look at chatbots and how there impersonation of the human mind can be used in performance to challenge the role of the human body.
C3: Time in performance and media.
Reproducing the now
Through web streaming and telecast, the live moment can now be broadcasted to the masses. Tate Live’s web streaming platform ‘Tate Live’ is a good example of how an institution is making use of the technological advances to turn an art form that once struggled to circulate smoothly within the fine art economy into a readily available commodity. With Auslander’s view in mind it appears that the potential for video streaming and sharing of web.2.0. has only enforced the capitalisation and mediatisation of live performance. However there is clearly something ontologically different about being physically present and watching a live stream on a computer screen. I, amongst others, have sat through glitchy, pixellated inaudible live performances streamed to audiences in art galleries and public institutions. The blind encouragement of institutions to live stream every event puts performance art at risk, as it can so easily be streamed, why not? Can we call a media representation that is happening asynchronously a reproduction? If it occurring at the same time, the representation becomes live. Although it is not a reproduction (as it is happening simultaneously) it is an immediate representation that is transmitted and received through wires, networks and screens. This real time representation becomes an object that can be quantified and valued through the hits likes and retweets that it receives. The amount of views a web stream gets can be used to value the scope of the performance; the more views the higher the value. Therefore web streaming turns the live event of a performance into a commodity as it turns the event into a consumable object that can circulate within the art market. Phelan’s argument that performance is outside of reproducibility is no longer the case as the increase in bandwidth and streaming platforms have enabled any performance to become instantly consumed by audiences on a global scale. However, although the quality of audio and video is always improving there is still so much lost when experiencing a performance via a webcast. In another interview Phelan highlights that she is not against the use of media in performance but wary of any technology that ‘flattens’ the liveness of the event.
‘For me, live performance remains an interesting art form because it contains the possibility of both the actor and the spectator becoming transformed during the event’s unfolding’ (xx Phelan)
How can technology be used to heighten this sensation of performance, that its application is not simply simulating the action through a webcam but being applied inventively to create and transmit the action. There are examples of artists using the speed of the Internet and the temporal aspects of web 2.0. and incorporating them into their work. A good example is ‘6pm your local time’ (http://www.6pmyourlocaltime.com/), a distributed exhibition taking place in many art institutions, galleries and artist studios at the same time, and documented under the same hashtag’( xx) Here the appointed time is the binding agreement for a series of simultaneous actions and performances that are broadcast over a social media channel. The actions are all documented via the social media platform and the curatorial theme is that it all happens co-currently. Another example is the leap second festival ‘The leap second festival is an open, free, distributed, international, non-profit festival for art, technology and precarity coordinated on the Internet.(xx) This festival takes it starting point as the second that is missed every 2 years with Universal time standards. Both of these events curate performance work, actions and gestures that are bound by their synchronicity to make a networked performance event in different places at the same time. There are examples of how the mobility of networked culture and its always-on connectivity not only enable dislocated performance happenings but the effects of these systems on our sense of time are becoming subjects in themselves for artists to explore. Artists are utilizing the liveness of technology to curate networked performance rather than imitate older mediums like television with webcasting and video streaming.
Time in web 2.0.
Two main changes have occurred since Auslander and Phelan discussed the importance of live performance. The first is the temporality of web 2.0. that came about in the early noughties and the second is the mobile smart phones. Both have disrupted liveness, not only temporally but also physically, as the phone is carried portable and carried on your person. The way in which we interact with the Internet has changed and its presence has had affects on how time and specifically the present moment has become fractured and dislocated. Mobile devices operate in real-time and are relentlessly present in our day-to-day lives, so I am going to look at some of the ideas of Auslander in Phelan in relation to this. The shift in the last ten years, since the books were published, has been the from ‘web 1.0’ to ‘web 2.0’. This signified a change in pace in how the Internet affected our sense of time. Web 2.0 was a rebranding of the Internet to make it more about interactivity and collaboration about participating and socialising though user interaction with a webpage. To achieve this fluidity of communication the Internet became asynchronous and websites went from direct static pages to dynamic sites that take form from a multitude of server requests. The experience of the Internet therefore changed as webpages refreshed and consistently updated with the latest content. They began to ask more from us as they became about our participation and involvement to make it into the profile social web it is now. Web pages were built to be responsive so that each interaction by the user triggered something but it’s not just the technical alterations but also the wider focus on the web being a social environment and requiring user involvement. Social media platforms like Facebook and twitter structure their content based on time, every post or comment is time stamped and displayed in the order of most recent. Facebook for example adds ‘Just Now’ or ‘Just a few seconds ago’ (xx) in the ongoing arrest for user attention. The streams of posts, comments, and updates are organised in order of immediacy. Our desire to know what is happening right now has been fully caught by social media platforms, now is suddenly happening somewhere else, and every time I load the page the latest event becomes outdated by the flow of real-time media. Douglas Rushkoff highlights this persistence for the present moment in the book ‘Present Shock’ where he argues that our sense of time, specifically the present has been disrupted by real-time technology. (Add quote + unpack)
The urgency of social media has altered our perception of time through the extended presence of mobile smart phones. This fluidity of information is extended onto our persons and expanded into our experience of life. The mobile phones with an Internet connection extend and make the fast, updating communication of web2.0. omni-present. The demands of web 2.0. social platforms and instant communications is a strain on remaining attentive. People being asked to put away with their phones to give their full attention from the meeting room to the concert and I have no doubt that we will continue to develop ways to make an active detachment from the interface to prioritise the event. However I am interested in artists who are working with these mediums to actually apply the values of live performance into the technology. Performing via mobile phones or turning social media into theatre, there are ways in which performance can thrive through these technologies and not struggle against the demands they make of us.
Ephermality in digital communication
The second aspect of performance defined by Phelan that I want to talk about in relation to mobile communication is disappearance. ‘ Without a copy, live performance plunges into visibility—in a maniacally charged present—and disappears into memory, into the realm of invisibility and the unconscious where it eludes regulation and control’ (1993:161) The value or uniqueness of live performance is how it alludes reproduction and with each beating moment disappears into memory. This unique quality of live performance has been incorporated into mobile communication services such as Snapchat and Frankly, both let users send images and video which can only be viewed once before it is deleted. These are recent trends and are not in a minority with (x) amount of users and in September 2014 Snapchat was valued at $10billion. The ephemerality and disappearance that Phelan prescribes as an exclusive attribute to live performance is now simulated in this communication platform. The media (in the case image and video) is reconfigured to be as valuable and precious as the passing moment that was once a distinctive quality of live performance. I am not attempting comparing messages on Snapchat as works of performance art - it is a communication service that is incorporating the idea of disappearance to a reproducible media object. It demonstrates how much the properties of performance that Phelan described as unique to its ontology are being appropriated in media and communication. The examples so far have of been of art being performed in ‘real-time’ with internet streaming, events co-ordinated by social media or performativity in digital communication. These technologies only become live through their temporal immediacy and still do not seem to threaten or challenge the physical presence of performance. Up until now I have been looking at technologies that are temporally live, but now I want to look at how the human can be performed by computers to re-imagine the presence of the body in performance.
This last technology that I want to look at is not a recent development but has only lately started to be used in performance and theatre. Chat bots are a particularly type of robot designed to imitate human characteristics with text based or voice synthesis and create conversation like interactions. Chatbots are not a new phenomena, Joseph Weizenbaum created ‘Eliza’ in 1966, a type of therapist bot that repeats user questions back to them thus giving the impression of talking to a very inquisitive listener. Since 1991computer scientists have competed to make the best chatbot in the Loebner prize, named after Alan Turing and based on the imitation game he describes in ‘Computing Machinery and intelligence’ (1950). In this competition judges converse with both a person and a chatbot through a screen and must distinguish the human, to this day no chatbot has successfully fooled all the judges and passed the imitation game. This hasn’t stopped their widespread application and from 2011 onwards all iphones and ipads now come with an interactive chatbot program titled ‘Siri’. Chatbots present a phenomenon within performance because although they are scripted and programmed they reference large data sets in such short spaces of time to respond in real time and effectively improvise with a human being. This is why Phillip Auslander believes that they disrupt the argument regarding liveness to an extent that ‘The existence of chatterbots reopens and reframes the question of liveness at a fundamental level’ (19, xx). In ‘Live from Cyberspace: Or, I Was Sitting at My Computer This Guy Appeared He Thought I Was a Bot ‘ Auslander describes chatbots as casting into doubt ‘the existential significance attributed to live performance’ (Auslander : 21). Because chatbots are able to operate and respond to people in real-time but are not ‘alive’ and immaterial they disrupt the physical living nature of live performance that it is of the ‘organic presence of human beings’ (Auslander: 21) To boost this claim Auslander references both Peggy Phelan and Herbet Blau who both describe performance as human centered activity in which the actors mortality is integral to live performance. Although chatbots imitate human presence in form by responding in real-time there non-visible or virtual entity means there is no physical embodiment. Phelan and Blau both value the unpredictable physical presence of a human body that time is affecting in front of you, and computer chatbots have no sense of this. They can be unpredictable and say outlandish things and develop a character but their immateriality and immortality suspend some physical properties of live that make it what it is. Herbet Blau makes a direct response to the article written by Auslander in ‘The Human Nature of the Bot: A Response to Philip Auslander’ in the January issue of performance art journal (2002). In this short text he makes two good points that disarm the declaration made by Auslander. The first is that chatbots, because they are a virtual entity and have no understanding of mortality the value that we attribute to liveness and physical presence does not translate. The automated actions of a machine have no sense of urgency or conscious being in the same way that human life form takes. This understanding of death and the difference between dead and living is what makes liveness important to human beings, but computer programs have no awareness of this. Auslander states that chatbots introduce the idea that performance is no longer a ‘specifically human activity’ and speculates on the capability for chatbots to conduct live performances between each other with no human bearing witness. This is another claim that Blau brings back to the human centered subject, although the capability for bot v bot performances could occur and go on without any human noticing, the conversation that took place would be largely similar to a human. The claim of Auslander that it becomes something other than ‘a specifically human activity’ raises eyebrows because the whole idea of the imitation game and the data sets and language used by the bots is that of a human being. In the next chapter I will look at two works, one that produces performances with solely chatbot algorithms and another that combines physical presence with a chatbot.
Section 3: My Verdict (plan)
In this chapter I will present performance and theatre works that employ the technology that I talked about in chapter 2 to create ephemeral, improvised and non-human performance art. Through interviews with artists and examples of work of myself and others I will frame my practice amongst other technological live performance art.
In relation to using social media in performance I want to talk about two performances of mine, emotional stock market and twitter theatre. Both use the feed of tweets as content for live performance art.
Look at performance pieces that use the mobile phone to tell the story. Blast Theory new work – Karen Soundwalks and mobile audio tours by Duncan Speakman.
After conducting an interview with Annie Dorsen regarding her ‘algorthmic theatre’ I will talk about how she challenges the notion of live and theatre by making plays with chatbots and computer algorithms.
To conclude I will question these works in regards to their ‘authenticity’, ‘liveness’ and their ‘mediatization’