Section 1: Introduction
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 ‘Back to the Future’ in London, UK. It was part of a live cinema event by Secret Cinema, who recreate the environment of the film with set and actors to screen the film. Something to discuss later is how the recreation of a media text into a live event aligns with Auslander’s view that performance has become another reproducible medium. On entering the event all audience members are asked to hand in their mobile phones for the duration of the event. On speaking with the Director, Fabian (xx) he insisted it was less in the interests of censorship but was more an attempt to gain the full attention of their audiences. By handing your mobile and detaching yourself from your device, it makes a division between the live physical event and the immaterial realm of digital communication. It is a clear entry point into understanding popular conceptions regarding the physical and the digital in relation to performance and theatre. The gesture of handing in a mobile phone to encourage yourself to participate in the present with others outlines the distinctive properties of performance that live performance (in this case theatre) is threatened by. Secret Cinema are not the only organization asking audience members to make a distinction between being physically present and actively online. Kate Bush on her reunion tour asked audience members not to use iphones and tablets and if they could all ‘share the experience together’ (xx). There are many reasons for this that I am sympathetic with, however I am mentioning these examples to highlight the popular consensus that mobile technology and the Internet connection it can provide degrades the experience of live. This discourse shows how the increase in mobile technology and the expanse of networked communication encroaches on live performance. In the current landscape performance is become integrated with the digital and as mobile phones become smaller and more ubiquitous asking people to part with their technology to benefit the experience of live performances will become somewhat ludicrous.
Performance like any other art form is altered within the space of technology and as technology changes performance adapts with it. It is important to review the discussion on what constitutes live and its importance in culture because the of the speed and ubiquity of computers, networks and mobile devices that are transforming the temporal rhythm of society. Social media, smartphones and web 2.0. all push services to be constantly updating for the latest news and refreshing the latest content. I want to look at the effect of this nowness that technology surges towards and how that alters the sense of presence and time in performance art. I am particularly interested in how performance art has responded to digital media and networked communication, retaining the authentic live principles through mediating devices. Because both books in this text were originally published in the 1990s they hover on disputing ‘playback’ media, technological representation that occurs post-event and is a medium to show after the performance takes place. ‘Playback media’ makes it easy to make a distinction between the original (live) and the secondary reproduction (media). The speed and expanse of network communication allows for devices to become temporally ‘live’ in conjunction with performances. This is key to why this discussion needs to be revaluated as the technology becomes more live temporally 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 with its use of technology.
Phillip Auslander’s ‘Liveness: performance in a mediatized culture’ 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.
I have chosen these two writers because of their discussion on the values of live performance and because I am interested in highlighting and exploring areas that their discussion does not cover. I will challenge the views outlined above by Peggy Phelan & Phillip Auslander by presenting a series of works that incorporate technology to produce the live aura of performance. Both Phelan & Auslander both care a great deal about live performance, they both go to great lengths to describe why live performance is important in contemporary culture. Because Auslander discuses such a wide range of performance genres across such a wide range of pop culture and Phelan just mentions some specific performance art works that support her understanding of live, I will argue there is a area of performance that incorporates the technological mediation (described by Auslander) to produce the ontology of live described by Phelan. It is important to review the debate on live performance primarily because of the speed and acceleration in which technology is integrated into the live art sector. In 2012 Tate Modern launched ‘Tate Live’ ‘a series of performances commissioned and conceived exclusively for the online space and are broadcast live across the web ‘ (xx) and Marina Abramovic’s online research platform for ‘immaterial and long durational works (xx). The quality of the work varies however they are the latest examples of how large institutions are creating performance programs that converge with the internet & popular digital media platforms (youtube etc). There is an abundance of live artists using the latest media developments in their work including telepresence, simulcast and video streaming. Within this discussion it is important to question weather anything new is at stake here, if performance art is being altered by technology, is this compromising of the values of performance art or even a new occurrence? The example of the Tate live program, from what I have experienced, is not doing anything new with technology itself but to put simply an example of capitalising on the latest technological developments like increase in bandwidth and availability of wireless networks. The willingness of performance artists to incorporate the agendas of institutions and the way they use the internet to publicise and present this work is relevant to understanding how live is being consistently transformed by the demands of economy and technology.
Section 2: Theoretical Context
It is important for both myself and the reader to go through some terms that are frequently used in by the writers I am looking at and how we should think apply these terms in this discussion.
The first term is the way in which the word ‘authenticity’, that Walter Benjamin introduced in ‘Art in the age of technical reproducibility’ (1936), is applied within this discussion. Benjamin says that authenticity is based on the ‘premise of the original’ (xx) and that it is ‘outside of technical reproducibility’ (xx). This logic retains a theory that the authentic, also referred to as ‘The aura’, is physically insulated within a time and place that cannot be recreated. Benjamin specifically talks about the performance of an actor and how the ‘aura is tied to his presence’ (xx). When a camera records this performance ‘the aura that envelops the actor vanishes’ (xx). According to Benjamin, this is the result of a technological representation and there can be no comparison between authentic original performance where the aura exerts itself between the presence of the actor and the spectator and the one that is captured by the lens of a camera. Auslander wants to dispel the distinction between their being an authentic real and an artificial reproduction and that media has infiltrated all aspects of performance that was once ‘the last refuge of the auratic’ (55:2005). He attempts to move away from the aura being a physical property but something that is a product of technical reproduction and interdependent with the authentic live. I do agree with departing from this binary separation of authentic (original) and artificial (technical reproduce) because of the hyper connectivity of mobile connection. I will also be using this when situating my own practice that combines myself as a present performer and a technology that produces unique interpretations with every performance. The technology can no longer be viewed as a reproduction or secondary to the live performer because its ability to alter the live action has exploded with the use of artificial intelligence and ‘real-time’ software.
The title of the Auslander’s book, 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.
Another definition from the computer Desktop Encyclopedia describes liveness in the condition of computation and data: In information security, liveness refers to the transmission of data that is happening now and not a replay of a recording of data sent previously. (xx) This computer definition is helpful to distinguish how the technology has changed from the early 90s when the writers first published these two texts. The networked infrastructure and mobile technology now circulates information at a much faster rate, to a point where computers can respond in ‘real-time’. This temporal condition of liveness can also be compared to what Peggy Phelan describes as ‘absence of writing’ (xx), It is encoding and decoding simultaneously. When people talk about the delay, or the lag when watching a live performance that is being streamed over the Internet they are talking about the quality of live in temporal terms. How ‘now’ something is has infested our media landscape, constant news coverage, refreshing browsers, updating news feeds. How can performance resist or subvert the immediacy of digital media to its own gain? If the quality of a performance lies within the spatial and temporal conditions how does the immediacy of networked technology disrupt this ontology? Does performance’s remaining unique quality lie in the physical, unmediated presence of the performer?
Another commonly used term by Auslander is ‘mediatization’. This is used to describe a cultural object produced from or within mass media or mass technology. It can be traced to the post-modern theorist Jean Baurdrillard who identifies it as
‘What is mediatized is not what comes off the daily press, out of the tube, or on the radio: it is what is reinterpreted by the sign form, articulated into models, and adminstered by the code’ (1981:175-6)
This rather open ended description makes any technological medium illegible as an object of mediatization. The appropriation of this term implies a postmodernist perspective about the ubiquity of technology that is far from neutral and should be remembered when considering Auslander’s views. One of the main weaknesses in Auslander’s text is this loose definition of media and how performance case studies that he chooses (predominantly rock concerts and pop musicians) are pioneers of mass media culture. Although Auslander’s analysis on media’s effect on performance is beneficial I will be selecting much more avant-garde performance genres that appropriate technology in such a way to challenge his argument.
Phillip Auslander’s ‘Liveness: performance in a mediatized culture’ has been a key text to performance theorists and culture studies as it examines how technology has co-opted live performance. The book looks at performance in a broad sense from rock concerts to legal trials to demonstrate how media (or electronic reproduction) has invaded performance to the point that they are both ‘mutually interdependent’. (xx)
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)
Auslander uses the pre-conception of authenticity to propose that all modes are performance are now mediated to an extent and that this traditional distinction of authenticity between performance and technology has now converged to a point where they have become indistinguishable. In his analysis Auslander wants to dispel vague notions of there being something unique or unexplainable about the live moment and firmly situate live performance within a media epistemology.
Live performance now often incorporates mediatization to the degree that the live event itself is a produce of media technologies. (2005: 40)
This view can be applied to Secret Cinema and their remaking of ‘Back to the Future’ that I mentioned in the introduction. 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 reappropriates its former. The live events of Secret Cinema sell over 3000 tickets per night, an example of theatre remediating film and a potential new passion for live in popular culture. 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 this is a negative thing at all. In Auslander’s ‘one size fits all’ he looks predominantly at performance in mass media (Live TV, Rock Concerts etc) so that the technology used is already part of an apparatus, a broadcast medium designed to represent performance. But when he is talking about the authenticity of rock bands from The Beatles recordings to Duran Duran lip-syncing, we are unable to see why that performance would be exempt from the tactics of mass media.
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’ 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 an intriguing position, that there is something other 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’ as this is 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). That performance’s distinctive quality of ‘now’ is infiltrated by technological reproduction that attempts to capture and reproduce this. I want 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. To describe the ontology that Phelan presents, is that of time passing and temporal disappearance that is created through physical presence and unrecorded bodily acts. “Performance art implicates the real through the presence of living bodies” (1993:148) these understandings open up further questions such as what happens when this presence is mediated through telepresence or ones performance is seen through the continual changing and disappearing frames of television or a digital video stream?
Conflict 1 – performance art is outside of the economics of reproduction The infrastructure has moved from one of reproduction to circulating production.
Neither is auratic or authentic the live performance is just one more reproduction of a given text or one more reproducible text’ (55:2005)
The main point of conflict is that Auslander claims that the ontology of Performance cannot exist outside of capitalist discourse and that it is naïve for Phelan to defend performance art as ontologically distinctive or a ‘site of resistance’ (xx). Performance art’s ephermearlity and immateriality has often created disruptions to the economic model of the fine art market. It is for this reason that Phelan describes it as ‘the runt of the litter in contemporary art’ (xx) because of its un-reproducibility. But how does the use of web streaming and real-time software that is not reproducing the event but broadcasting within a simultaneous temporal state? Lets return to Tate Live’s webstreaming platform to ask if the technology is not reproducing the event then does it maintain to be outside of media circulation? It does highlight how performance can become absorbed by available media resources and how the institutional agenda can co-opt the work of art. It shows 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 experience. As audiences watch via their laptops or mobile phones it certainly feels like repeating Benjamin’s comment ‘That which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art’ (xx). In this case the utilization of technology to make things live does hinder the core values of performance art and experience as the performance is mediated via a small screen. I will go on to present works that utilize the availability of technology in ways that don’t just replicate old mediums like television broadcasting, but present alternative ways for performance and technology to not become formatted for media representation.