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Digital Practices: Aesthetic and Neuroesthetic Approaches to Performance and Technology (Palgrave Macmillan 2007) by Susan Broadhurst

Sue Broadhurst’s latest book is a fascinating and much needed overview of current developments within the field of media and performance. Extremely well structured and presented the text articulates a remarkably clear developmental pathway through the material in which an exciting and ultimately empowering journey is offered to the reader leader leading as it does from theoretical exposition to informed and detailed application to practice.

Although there are now a number of books available which look at the uses and consequences of melding new technologies with performance, this project is unique in its approach which focuses on the receptive processes of digital practice rather than providing an historical overview. There is an emphasis here on the contemporary and a move to embrace practice beyond the stage so as to broaden our understanding of the corporeal/virtual interface and to evaluate its political/social implications. Broadhurst identifies the Zeitgeist qualities inherent in such practice as she describes how experimental artworks and performances embracing the digital have the capacity to offer double gestures of critique and potential impact on the social/political. Or as Broadhurst opines: ‘the digital does what all avant-guard does; it is an experimental extension of the social-political and cultural of an epoch’ (2007, 185)

In some ways this work extends the authors timely and influential investigations into the liminal in performance outlined in her previous work Liminal Acts: A critical overview of contemporary performance and theory (Continuum/Cassell, 1999) in which she identifies a deficiency in traditional and contemporary critical/aesthetic theories which limits interpretation of intersemiotic performances. Just as Broadhurst built a well researched and thoroughly convincing model for intersemiotic analysis in this previous work, here she sets out on a similar mission to help find an apposite critical methodology to respond to and appreciate the technological infiltration of human experience as articulated within alternative and mainstream performance and culture.

I have found in other books attempting to explore technologies and performance there is a tendency to reference critical performance theories but not to build an argument as to how these theories might help us comprehend our own receptive processes when viewing the work. Here the theoretical exposition is convincingly built so that in the authors own words we acquire a ‘tool box’ with which to look at performance practice afresh. I believe this to be a key strength of the book. In building a theoretical structure in the first part of the book ‘Digital Practices’ eases the reader through the articulation of theory by referencing practice in way entirely organic with the formulation of arguments developed throughout without a resulting disruption of its flow. Potential students can see in the analysis of the work a clearer pathway to where the theoretical exploration is leading and which enables the interrogation of practice in the later chapters to really take flight. It is often a reality in the case of many academic performance related texts that students and lecturers alike ‘dip’ in and out of texts choosing to read only the parts that hold most relevance to a given area of interest. This text however begs to be read from cover to cover as it provides such a convincing and compelling developmental structure.

In her search for an apposite aesthetic for the appreciation of digital practices Broadhurst employs theorists such as Merleau-Ponty, Lyotard, Derrida and Deleuze to help her construct a critical methodology which embraces sensual and perceptive strategies to address the interface between the physical and the virtual. This theoretical exposition is always careful emphasize the centrality of the body as she argues that ‘In digital practices, instrumentation is mutually implicated with the body in an epistemological sense’ and, quoting Merleau-Ponty suggests ‘the body is our general medium for having a world’ (2007, 186). This emphasis on the body allows Broadhurst to explore the tensions that exist within the spaces created by the interface of body and technology and argues that such spaces are ‘liminal’ spaces, located on the ‘threshold’ of the physical and virtual. Here the physical/virtual body explored within digital practices becomes a ‘body of potential creativity’ (2007, 187).

Crucial to this call for a new mode of analysis to fully comprehend the significance and experience of digital practice is a developmental aesthetic perspective, an appreciation of the creative potential of the ‘liminal’ space, combined with the biological processes which inform how we perceive, or in other words, developments in recent research into cognitive neuroscience. In investigating the emerging field of ‘neuroesthetics’, Broadhurst provides insight into how an understanding of the biological basis of aesthetic experience could be a crucial ingredient in appreciation of digital practice. The key aspects of the theoreticians featured in the earlier sections of the book are employed so that Merleau-Ponty’s embodied perspective on cognition and interaction, Lyotard’s revision of the Kantian ‘sublime’, Derrida’s writings on deconstruction and identity and Deleuze’s notion of ‘desire’ are applied to recent research into cognitive neuroscience and consciousness. In doing so the reader is offered a highly original and illuminating perspective in an analysis of the digital in performance. Broadhurst argues that due to an increased sophistication in computer modelling and brain scanning techniques there has been a greater synthesis within fields such as cognitive science, artificial intelligence and neurobiology, and that as a result of such convergences we have at our disposal previously overlooked disciplines which may help further the development of a neuroesthetic which in turn, she argues, could be useful as an interpretive framework for digital performance practice. I personally found this section of the book to be informative, fascinating and highly original and felt that this area could lead into potentially fascinating follow up material in its own right

In focusing on selected examples of live performances and the digital which illustrate the interface between the physical/virtual in the books fourth chapter the reader can now see how the theoretical ‘tool kit’ constructed in the previous chapters can be employed in an entirely convincing and meaningful way. Amongst the practices and practitioners studied are the digital dances of Merce Cunningham (most notably his BIPED project), the cybernetic experimental gestures of Stelarc, and the authors own interactive ‘Jeremiah project’ in which the virtual being ‘Jeremiah’ is an example of a computerized artificial intelligence equipped with the ability to react to its audience and interact with specific facial emotional responses. In all these examples there are core questions addressed such as what are the effects of new technologies in the analysis of the performing body? How do we theorize the destabilization of identity and origin in such work? and What are the implications of virtual performances for the body and space? (2007, 76). In Broadhurst’s final analysis she posits that ‘the implication for digital practices is that the embodied self is delimited, hybridized and indeterminate’ (2007, 97) and in doing so furthers the case for such liminal spaces as a site of potential disturbance and re-invention.

This argument is furthered in consecutive chapters, the first of which offers an analysis of the work of Optik, Troika Ranch and Palindrome – performance collectives who explore the coupling of electronic sound technology with visual and network technologies for real time interaction. Whilst an interesting deviation from live performance in the next chapter takes us into the world of digital film focusing on the recent Matrix and Star Wars prequel trilogies. What I found interesting here is that such recent developments in cinema technologies serve to reference a low tech precedence in fantasy film-work with motion pictures such as earlier Disney films ‘Mary Poppins’, ‘Bedknobs and Broomsticks’ and ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ which similarly attempted to mix live action with animated worlds as well as the first film to explore notions of computer generated simulacra; ‘Tron’. There is also a performance legacy here in such work as the Britton brother’s performance ensemble Forkbeard Fantasy who for many years have experimented with the real/virtual worlds of filmic fantasy and live performance. The act of walking into this realm/screen has held fascination with audiences for many years ever since Mary Poppins and her charges followed the hybrid American-cocky shaman chimney-sweep into jumping into/through selected pavement art to escape the (hyper)reality of the streets of London (or at least the Disney representation of ‘London’ as filtered through American consciousness). Such films and performance work which explore this possible wish fulfilment fantasy could surely be seen as part of the enhancement and reconfiguration of aesthetic creativity which Broadhurst claims in the book fundamentally alters our sense of being in the world.

The final chapter of the book explores the emergent form of ‘Bioart’ – a form of digital practice which incorporate biotechnology within their creative experimentation. Such work, whilst being apparently complicit with ‘dominant means of digital representation’ are seen by Broadhurst at the same time to: ‘destabilize those dominant structures by focusing on areas of concern relating to the commodification and consumerism of such technology’ (2007, 194).

‘Digital Practices’ acknowledges that digital performance is not only to be witnessed within experimental art practices but is becoming increasingly prevalent within mainstream performance and film practice and as such this book seems not only timely but important as a much needed investigation into the construction of a theoretical aesthetic to question how we the audience receive such work. ‘Digital Practice’ in providing this for the reader may well act as a crucial text which may help access other texts in this area if read first. It is of course, and excellent companion text to the authors own work with Josephine Machon, Performance and Technology: Practices of Virtual Embodiment and Interactivity (Palgrave Macmillan 2006).

I personally run a level three course at my university entitled ‘Vision and Technology: Theatres’ of the Future’ and created this module in response to the ever increasing performance pieces which incorporated a preponderance of media which my students were regularly witnessing on the London stages. Speaking to fellow academics at various institutions around England it would seem that there are many such courses in action or in preparation which are responding to this trend. As a lecturer in the field I witness many students in universities attempting to integrate the often limited technologies available to them into their own performance practice, yet such attempts are often limited to the ‘token’ and lack a true sense of aesthetic integration in their work. As it is students can access many examples of digital practice in professional performance but have very few sources textually that can help explain the implications of its use. I believe that this books theorization of the physical/virtual interface and its application to performance practice can only lead to a more sophisticated and considered use of such technologies in student practice.

I believe that digital performance is only going to expand and develop in the 2000’s and that responses to the challenges it poses to live performance practice are going to be crucial in our understanding of its uses and implications both aesthetically, culturally and politically. In some ways such studies are way overdue as now demand is so high in academic circles for texts which engage with some of these concerns. Although to a certain extent digital practice will very soon develop in terms of sophistication and the extent to what is possible and as such the examples here might seem low tech a few years down the line, it is worth bearing in mind that if such developments are not documented and interrogated in this way then there are no secure theoretical building blocks for further development of how to receive such practice in the future. As an academic myself I find also that I am still looking back to very early articles in the TDR where artists were experimenting with digital media in their practice and find such articles extremely informative when looking at current production work using digital practice. In short I believe this publication to be a ground breaking and long lasting resource for anyone interested in the uses and influences of contemporary technologies in performance practice and beyond which will appeal to a range of readers from undergraduate to postgraduate students studying performance, media and cultural studies as well both theatre professionals and academics/scholars in these fields.

Paul Woodward is Senior lecturer in Drama & Physical Theatre at St.Mary’s University College. He has worked as a director/performer/writer for the physical/experimental theatre companies Sculpture (West Midlands) & Glory What Glory (Lancaster/London). Graduating with an MA (distinction) in Theatre at Royal Holloway, he consolidated his research into body/sign systems in Theatres of Asia and its application to Sign Language Theatres of the Deaf. Paul remains active as a professional director/dramaturg and has collaborated with Maxine Doyle (First Person dance/theatre) & Dr Josephine Machon (Brunel University) investigating the interface between the body, popular cultures and technology. He has delivered physical theatre workshops nationally and internationally including the international festival of therapy and theatre, Lodz, Poland and in Knysner, South Africa working with HIV positive children in the townships. Paul’s current practice led research investigates the performativity of HIV (dis)closure.