PETER M BOENISCH
www dot theatre dot
Alice Croft, or: Transforming Performance in Internet Culture
This essay examines how computer technology has reshaped and redefined traditional aesthetic strategies of signification in theatrical performance, introducing ‘virtual’ spaces and realities to the stage. A recent production by the LIDA Project (www.lida.org), an experimental theatre collective based in Denver, Colorado, will be used as an illuminating example – even if (or rather: because) their piece uses none of the so-called ‘new media’ on stage. Building on that case study, I will then draw some tentative conclusions on the potential force and impact of live performance in our electrONic society: Following conceptual suggestions mainly from Gilles Deleuze and Julia Kristeva, I will describe contemporary electrONic performance as operating in a liminal space, as an interface between us and both a fictional semiotic cyberspace and a symbolic reality.
The ten-person, 75-minute-long piece is centred around Alice – a figure at the crossroads between the real and the virtual: she brings together both the real Alice Liddell, with her infamous relationship as a sort of child muse to the Anglican reverend Charles Dodgson (better known as the writer Lewis Carroll), and the fictional, virtual Alice as she appears in Carroll’s popular novels Alice in Wonderland and Through The Looking-Glass. The piece’s narrative is loosely structured around the lives of and the relationship between Dodgson and Liddell. At the same time, it superimposes today’s internet society onto the ‘real’ Victorian background of the two protagonist’s story. At one point in the performance, for example, Alice is operating a computer mouse as she enters Wonderland through the looking glass. Later, she will supply the Dodgson character with a technical device on which he starts to compose. Once he uses this ‘notebook’, however, his poetry begins to lose its potency and he is drawn into a creative crisis. Next to these two main characters, other famous figures from the Wonderland stories enter the stage: the Red Queen, the Mad Hatter, the White Rabbit, the Cheshire Cat, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and – in the role of a narrator of sorts – the Caterpillar. The piece, however, is anything but a dramatization of the novels’ plots, spiced up by references to contemporary virtual worlds. There is no conventional, plot-based dramatic dialogue; the intertextual script text combines paragraphs from the novels with lines drawn from numerous other sources (from contemporary philosophy to internet banner ads) in a highly associative way (2). With that textual polylogue alone, the performance creates the atmosphere of an internet chat room: Alice and Dodgson try to establish communication between themselves, but at the same time, other voices and characters intervene. Some of them comment and extend the dialogue of the central characters, others appear merely as ‘white noise’ in the background, even as unwanted, disrupting interference. Corresponding to these ‘vocal tableaux’, as a newspaper review has described them (Yakhlef, 2001: n.pag), there are equally associative visual tableaux, created, above all, by a distinctive lighting design. On the aural level, electronic techno music is played. All this suggests an atmosphere of a ‘cerebral space of the stage’ (Yakhlef, 2001: n.pag; comp. also Lillie, 2001). However, the production was formally staged in an almost traditional manner; it did not bring any computers on stage, and made no use of the internet in the performance either.
Alice is thus thematically based on an exploration of similarities between Alice’s Wonderland and today’s ‘Wonderland’ of cyberspace. The escapism manifest in her journeys functions, on that level, as the ground for comparison between Carroll’s Victorian society and today’s digital culture. The Victorian world, where nearly everything took place behind closed doors, would echo current mechanisms of repression particularly well, especially in the US – an aspect of the production which was reinforced only months after the performance of the piece, in the wake of 11 September (3). Carroll’s Wonderland stages a virtual counterworld, the remedy for these every-day repressions, a utopian and free place, where identities become fluid, where numerous fantastic characters come alive – and a place where controversial, suppressed sexual fantasies might be realized, or at least meditated upon in symbolic form. At the same time, however, this surreal Wonderland is based – exactly like the Web’s virtual realities – on a number of strict rules, which Alice has first to decode in the course of her journeys. But not only Carroll’s fictional world functions this way; his novels are likewise thoroughly rule-based structures. The writer used numerous anagrams and codes, which – once de-coded – gave way to almost unlimited dimensions beneath the surface of what at first glance seems to be tales for children. For both Alice – the character – and for Dodgson – the writer –, these journeys are ‘about creating imaginary worlds that have a special relationship to reality – worlds in which we can extend, amplify, and enrich our own capacities to think, feel, and act’. With these words, Brenda Laurel describes human/computer interaction in her book Computers as Theatre (Laurel, 1991:33). That not only serves as concise description of Alice’s Wonderland and cyberspace, but also as a useful definition of theatre.
So far, I have described the thematic treatment of electrONic culture in the performance text of LIDA’s Alice-production. At the same time, though, the collective sought to intersect theatre and digital technology on a second level as well. The entire performance – which, as mentioned above, made no use of computer or internet technology on stage – was conceived on-line, using the net as a forum for communication and collective creation. Even before the first rehearsal period in November 2000, LIDA had posted a number of questions on their website (www.good-evil.org). Some of these focal questions from this internet communication were: What is the definition of theatre? Can that traditional aesthetic medium remain valid and still be a powerful tool to reflect issues of our electronic society? Is theatre still meaningful to an audience which is permanently confronted with concepts of interactivity and numerous other manifestations of a entirely digitalized environment in their daily lives? Then, are computers able to enhance the theatrical experience? The most riveting Internet events are still live performances: live chats, live concerts, the live broadcast of births, executions and sex. Thus, can the Internet also advance artistic live performance, or is it only a powerful medium for broadcasting theatrical events? Is that particular liveness of computer transmitted events which has become known as ‘tele-presence’ of performance and audience identical and equally forceful than the traditional theatrical co-presence of actors and spectators in the same room, at the same time?
The search for answers to these and similar questions provided the idea and starting point of the entire Good : Evil – Experiments project. Brian Freeland, the artistic director, was not at all pleased with the way performance and theatre has reacted to the new, highly technological environment (4): on the one hand, he stated, intimate chamber pieces, what he calls ‘campfire-type theatre’ seemed to satisfy the human longing for direct, personal contact in our mediatized society. On the other hand, there are hybrid forms of techno-theatre which for him ‘don’t have to take place in the theatre itself.’ Thus, when it comes to telling a story – which for Freeland is the rhyme and reason of the theatre – the influence of computers on theatre spectators is hardly ever reflected today. With his Good : Evil - Experiments, he strives to bridge this gap. Alice, as the first result of these experiments, was to become a conventional contemporary theatre piece, performed live before an audience in a theatre space. But even before its first night, the internet and computers had already been integrated into the process of producing the piece. The group’s homepage was the place where the performance that would become Alice was created – on-line, and in real time. Their discussion forums mentioned above were opened for the on-line public, in the so-called ‘Connection’-section of the website. Meanwhile, the on-site collaborators (Freeland himself, the playwright Tami Canaday, the dramaturge Kryssi Wyckoff Martin, and the local performance artists Jeannene Bybee, Steven Divide, and Nils Swanson) started their research on the lives of Carroll/Dodgson and Alice Liddell, on their relationship, and, more generally, on their context in the Victorian era. Alice’s counter-Victorian Wonderland thus became the ‘Looking Glass’ for the simultaneous discussions of the questions summarized above. All the research, together with a ‘rehearsal notebook’, were also made available on-line, where visitors were then able to contribute their own suggestions, thoughts, and comments. Another important part of the website was the ‘Location’-page, where links could be added: these soon encompassed sites about contemporary techno music as well as specialist sites dedicated to Alice and the Victorian age.
figure 1: The LIDA collective rehearsing Alice.
When it came to devising the production and preparing the script, the entire process was again continuously documented on-line. After the roles had been cast, the performers started to read and discuss chapters from Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Their reactions, images and incidental thoughts on the texts were published in the rehearsal notebook. Early on in these discussions, the similarities of the novels’ Wonderland and digital cyberspace (which later functioned as the thematic basis of the piece, as described above) quickly became one of the key issues. Intimate correlations between these worlds were discovered, regarding issues such as personality, language, and phenomenological experience. At the same time, the debates focused on an astounding sense of continuity between the virtual worlds and the real-life presence. Likewise, the rule-based structures of both the digital and the Dodgson/Carrol-Wonderlands were identified and explored. Reading the play, the collaborators compared Alice’s entry into Wonderland with our everyday log-ins into cyberspace. It turned out that Carroll’s two novels confronted the reader with two entirely different attitudes on the part of Alice as she entered the fictitious space: in Alice in Wonderland, she is portrayed as ignorant, out of control, and directly affected by what is happening to her. In contrast, Through The Looking Glass shows Alice in an ‘updated mode’, as one contributor to the on-line discussion remarked: there, she has become highly developed, is in total control, and now is the one who affects what is happening.
With no text or finished play to put on stage, the practical rehearsals explored the issues from the on-line and on-site discussions on a physical level. At one point, the collaborative actors and directors discovered a close relationship between these issues and the game of chess: with its white and black figures, it seemed to reflect the underlying bipartite Good/Evil structure of the entire project. There were other similarities as well: chess is also based on thoroughly logical, mathematical operations and definite rules, similar to computer commands like ‘Go To’ or ‘Stop’. In the end, chess became the basis for physical exercises, and its rule-based structure was also employed when it came to arranging text paragraphs from the novel for the performance. Furthermore, the game of chess provided the basis for the setting of Alice: on stage, there was a black-and-white checkerboard pattern, and the actors moved about like chess figures for the whole first part of the performance.
It was only after the physical exercises inspired by chess and the simultaneous on-line discussions had taken off that the structure for the script began to emerge. The production takes the lives and relationship between Dodgson and Liddell as basic narrative outline, and that relationship lasted from the late 1850s to the early 1930s – well after Dodgson’s death in 1898. This vast amount of time was divided into twelve parts which represented the dramaturgical development. The twelve sequences were to form the basic structure of the production. At one point, all the major themes from the debates – on-line and on-site – were isolated, sorted and classified correspondingly into twelve groups. Each group was assigned a brief, one-word headline, together with a short description and a number of sub-themes. The groups were referred to as ‘scene buckets’ and again were published on-line. Here, contributors were invited not only to submit passages from the Carroll novels corresponding to the relevant themes, but also any other material or ideas which were associated with the topic of the twelve scene buckets. Playwright Tami Canaday used that collection of heterogenous material to create the texts for the twelve scenes of the performance by supervising the on-line development of the scene buckets on the web-page, distributing the lines, and building characters. At all times, her scriptwriting process, her acceptance or rejection of submitted ideas and texts was available on-line where the process, of course, sometimes caused controversy among those involved.
The production of Alice had thus become the collective work of multiple authors. Here collaboration did not merely mean the addition of the works of several individuals, but a continual polylogue. The multi-layered web-structure of the finished text reflects the creative process. Brian Freeland expressed his hope that the processual character of the piece’s production would be, in the future, extended to its performance:
There’s still plenty of room within the piece for future iterations, where people might actually direct elements, such as sound and lights, over the Internet. That’s the ultimate vision for this piece: To have two types of audience – one sitting in an actual, legitimate theatre and one sitting in front of a monitor. Both would be having the same type of experience, yet in different physical locations (quoted in Froyd, 2001: n.pag).
It is significant that Freeland stresses that ‘same type of experience’. It seems his ‘ultimate vision’ is not to create purely internet-transmitted theatre, as has been done in the past by various performance groups. The actual experience of theatrical liveness seems to be the key issue he now wants to address in further modules of the Good : Evil - Experiments. Currently, LIDA have launched phase 2 of their project, at present simply entitled “Next”. Here, LIDA want to move on to achieve the contrasting result of Alice: to create a performance that will not have a physical existence, which exists only in the ‘digital ether’ but is still based ‘on the ideals and communications of humanity’ (5). To that end, however, some of the same techniques and processes would be applied that were used in the Alice-module: the participants would still work as a stage ensemble with rehearsals, emotional and physical exploration, blocking, inflection and intention. But this time it would all take place from separate locations, as there will not be a single ‘real-world’ physical location any more. The rehearsals and the development of that project will, instead, take place in digital form: via e-mail, in chat rooms, or with the help of collaboration software. At this time, only the ground rule for the future project has already been set down: its subject matter will not exclusively refer to the digital world, but will be based on ‘actual human traits and behaviors of the current era’. Whether the second module of the experiments will or will not become yet another internet performance using video-conferencing, and livestreaming is still open. However, as LIDA do not embrace such technology uncritically, there is the promise of an ongoing debate which may generate new insights into the condition of theatre in electrONic culture.
In order to describe how LIDA’s 2001 production builds on, but at the same time transcends, well known strategies of postmodern performance theatre to become a prime example of electrONic theatre, I have taken a concept of Deleuze which proves a helpful looking glass. In his writings on cinema – The Movement Image and The Time Image – Deleuze investigated changes in the signification strategies of movies during the course of the twentieth century. Much more than sketching out just another chapter of film theory, he took pains to demonstrate how cultural strategies for understanding and representing, for imagining ourselves, have been influenced by the semiotic strategies of the cinematic image, particularly by its specific visual rendering of time through space. He thus examines intersections and interrelations between aesthetic and everyday symbolism. This analysis of a direct connection and intersection of the production of the aesthetic and the social symbolic order is also of crucial importance to our current investigation. In his volumes, Deleuze meticulously described two stages in the history of film semiotics. Early cinema was based on what he terms the ‘movement-image’ – an organic form of composition (comp. Deleuze 1986). Later, that organic mode was replaced by what he calls ‘time-image’, a serial form of composition (comp. Deleuze 1989). Applied to theatre history, these concepts point to elucidating correspondences: the ‘movement-image’ reflects the same semantic strategies on which the Western dramatic tradition of realistic theatre had been based. The serial ‘time-image’, then, echoes numerous approaches of twentieth century avant-garde theatre, particularly postmodern performance theatre since the Cage-Cunningham-watershed, the ‘untitled event’ of 1953 (6). The serial form of composition in recent performance theatre already introduced the stage to some of the key semiotic strategies for the emerging electrONic culture (7). Performance theatre established specific anti-hierarchical structures: it abolished the hegemonic domination of one particular sign system, like the dramatic text. Postmodern performance theatre, directors like Merce Cunningham or Robert Wilson, had deconstructed the theatrical code by dispersing it into its component parts and only then recombining them serially in the characteristic manner of a pastiche. While introducing a superficial playfulness (we should remember Cunningham’s notorious dices and other chance procedures), such performances nevertheless adhered to a rigid, predominantly formal structuredness. Apart from that, they helped to tear down customary boundaries between the performance itself and its reflection and criticism, between theory and practice – and eventually between the fictional ‘reality’ of the stage and the every-day reality of the audience. The old avant-garde quest for art as reality was combined with a highly developed self-consciousness about the creative process – at times taken to the extreme position of radical self-referentiality.
All these observations are equally applicable to LIDA’s Alice. Here a theatrical meta-discourse had even been the starting point of the group’s entire Good:Evil-Experiments. But at closer examination, Alice also transcends these still paratactic semiotic strategies of postmodern performance and introduces electrONic culture in its full extent. Its non-linear dramaturgical structure confronts the audience with not only a serial syntagma, but with a multi-layered, de-centred web of signs. It functions in a similar way as contemporary computer technology. As with the ‘Cut&Paste’-function of present-day software, electrONic performance integrates signs from all different sources into one huge synthesized network. This semiotic web is capable of working simultaneously on various semantic modes of presentation, such as the self-referential, mimetic and metaphoric mode. It becomes a sort of performative Random Access Memory, which the spectators activate individually by finding, or rather linking and clicking, their own paths through the synthesized web. These performances thus generate unlimited readings and eventually realize the full gamut of virtual realities of theatrical performance. Correspondingly, rethinking Deleuze’s analysis of cinema, Slovenian philosopher Marina Gržinic suggests that such contemporary semiotic strategies constitute another shift in the space-time paradigm Deleuze had already described. Following and complementing him, she calls these forms for contemporary self-imagining, ‘the virtual image’ (comp. Gržinic 1999). Additionally, its corresponding form of composition might be termed ‘synthesizing composition’, which replaces earlier tactics of organic and serial composition. Again, film and theatre join hands in their aesthetic symbolism. ElectrONic culture, as implemented by the full range of available media, displace traditional modes of representation, which in the virtual worlds of simulacra and simulation have become nothing but void.
Instead of reiterating traditional concepts of mimesis and representation, virtual realities of aesthetic symbolism present alternatives to hegemonic discursive conventions. Because they are entirely open and limitless, but nevertheless highly structured networks of signs, the performative webs establish their own symbolic order. They create, above all, their own structures of space and time – the coinage ‘real-time’ for our ‘standard’ phenomenological experience of time has indeed become a necessity. We might clarify the working of aesthetic symbolism with a concept borrowed from Julia Kristeva. In her Polylogue, she demarcates the symbolic order (which includes notions of conventional signification, denotation and representation) from the semiotic order (comp. Kristeva 1977). She describes the latter as a temporary articulation, a non-expressive rhythm, which has not yet been formalized. The semiotic order is made up of instinctual synapses, what Kristeva terms ‘frayages’, and their marks. It is within this virtual space of the semiotic that electrONic performance operates. Within the ensemble of electrONic media, however, it has been neither film nor theatre that has introduced and experimented with these new strategies of virtual imagery. The computer game Tomb Raider was once the spearhead of an entire strain of PC-adventure games which created their own, alternative cyber-worlds – Wonderlands of Lara Croft and other virtual characters. Most strikingly, the recent movie version of the game, now also released on DVD and video, works in the opposing direction. Instead of transferring the semiotic potential of the virtual image to the medium of film, it reintegrates the alternative, aesthetic symbolic order presented in the game within the standard symbolic order of real-time and conventional real-world symbolic representation. The movie even incorporates this surprising submission under the ‘law of the father’ in an emblematic scene, where it uses ultra-traditional iconography. When the movie’s heroine, who is on the quest for her dead father, meets him in a vision, their fingers touch in the well-known iconographic finger-figuration of the Michelangelo-painting, The Creation. Typically for a Hollywood-movie, the on-screen Lara raids the tombs and loads her pistols in a superficially virtual-fictional Wonderland, which, when we look more closely, turns out to be yet another reiteration of the hegemonic cultural-discursive formation. In terms of Michael Hardt’s and Antonio Negri’s analysis of globalized capitalism (comp. Hardt/Negri 2000): the Empire striked back! Not only the internal discourse of the movie, but also the marketing strategy accompanying its release reinforced the hegemonic discourse: Lara Croft, heroine of (at least potentially) subversive, computer-hacking nerds, was turned into a commercially sellable version of a militant feminist. This astonishing move worked on the basis of the superimposition of the fictional, ‘virtual’ character with her flesh-and-blood alter ego, the actress Angelina Jolie, who was regularly portrayed in the press as a non-conformist rule-breaker. She never, of course, really challenged the rules of the symbolic order. In the end, the movie version had tamed Lara Crofts virtual Wonderland into a fashion and cosmetics store.
LIDA’s stage performance of Alice, in contrast, works in the opposite direction. Instead of reuniting the virtual presentation with a symbolic representation, it amplifies its virtual imagery to the point where the audience not only gets involved in symbolic fiction – like in the Tomb Raider computer game – but also plays an integral part in the construction of a virtual, non-formalized symbolism – ‘the semiotic space’, in Kristeva’s terms. On the same conceptual basis of instinctual synapses, electrONic theatre achieves its inter-activation of the audience. Far from bringing the spectator clumsily on stage in the form of audience-participation, the audience is confronted with a linked web of signs – a polylogue which cannot be reduced to a single, coherent and all-encompassing reading. Here, there is no singular ‘authorial voice’ lurking behind the multi-layered web of signs anymore. Theatrical communication here indeed resembles a chat-room. There are numerous voices creating a web of signs simultaneously and non-hierarchically, voices which cannot be reduced to the voice of one, two, or even a quantifiable number of authors. But as digital cyberspace and as Carroll’s Wonderland, the performance’s virtual web of signs follows very strict rules. There is no fragmentation or pastiche as in postmodern performance anymore, but a tightly woven ‘hyper-text’ which, instead of being focused by an authorial voice, is focused thematically. For the spectators, the performance thus functions as an interface and enables them to find their own path through that web of signs, clicking their own links. Thus they follow, in Kristeva’s terms, their own instinctual synapses – thereby operating in the semiotic order, and transgressing the confines of conventional symbolic representation. The creation of such a semiotic surplus makes electrONic theatre a powerful interface to reality – not in spite of, but because it has eluded the conventional, organic mirror-mode of mimetic representation, which Kristeva terms ‘the symbolic’. By creating virtual semiotic Wonderlands in live performance, theatre shows that there are alternatives which are neither escapist utopias nor superficial cosmetics, but which involve and challenge each single spectator, as it is only that spectator who has the power to navigate his or her way through the web of signs and thereby create meaning. Operating simultaneously both in the real symbolic order (of presence, representation and reality) and in the semiotic sphere (of the presentation of alternatives, alienation and un-reality), theatre as live art has – in its virtual cyberspace – the potential for criticism and intervention, in contrast to that other cyberspace, which has long been annexed by the entertainment industry and its hegemonic discourse as yet another means of diversion and distraction.
I would like to thank Dr David Barnett, University of Huddersfield, currently guest-lecturer with a research-grant from Humboldt-Stiftung at LMU Munich, for reviewing the language and grammar.
Boenisch, Peter M (2002): körPERformance 1.0. Munich: ePodium.
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Lillie, Jim: ‘Alice in Cyberland. The LIDA Project examines technology’s effect on the human conscience.’ – In: Westword, May 10, 2001 (http://www.westword.com
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Yahklef, Cilicia (2001): ‘Through The Monitor @ Alice’ – In: GoGo Magazine, Vol. 3, Iss. 10, May 10-23, 2001 (http://www.gogomagazine.com
Dr Peter M Boenisch (*1971) is lecturer for dance and performance at the Institute for Theatre Studies at Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich/Germany. His main research interests are corporeality and physicality on stage, theatre and media, and British theatre history. He chairs the ‘Emerging Scholars’-committee within the Performance Studies international-organization, and is a member of the working group ‘Theatre and Intermediality’ within the International Federation for Theatre Research. Apart from several essays, he has recently published his book ‘körPERformance’ (in German). Currently, he is co-editing an issue of Performance Research on ‘Bodiescapes’ for Routledge.