Design And Performance Lab


Digital Performance


Johannes Birringer

(c) 2006

"Digital Performance", Performance Research 11:3, 42-45


Digital performance describes a hybrid art form, and an artistic movement arising at the end of the 20thC which cross-fertilizes the characteristics of "the digital" and the "performative." This interdisciplinary field of artistic practice and research develops new methods combining performance and compositional techniques derived from live art, installation, and screen-based media art with design principles derived from the computational operations of digital technology and human-machine interfaces (interactivity).

The methods encompass new philosophical questions of time/space, materiality of the virtual, digital stage and augmented reality, recombination, real-time synthesis, authorship, distribution and audience. Digital Performance inherits its identity from traditions in a variety of fields such as computer science, electrical and mechanical engineering, photography, dance, music, theatre, robotics, film and video and at the same time by inventing new processes.

The reconfigurations digital technologies bring about in the field of artistic creativity can be noticed in a range of performative digital processes which combine live performers and digital media in the same space, augment the physical space with Virtual Reality or Virtual Environments (VE), transpose the performance to the computer (virtual theatre and games) or the internet utilizing intelligent agents or synthetic characters (avatars), or arrange interactive scenarios for audience participation. In a broad definition of the term, many kinds of performance in the arts and the creative industries (e.g. animation, advertising, wireless networks) make use of digital technology to extend the reach of audiovisual and synaesthetic communication. In a narrower definition of the term, digital performance connects the physical body to interactive digital devices which make it possible for the performer to control and influence media output music, video, VE, streaming media, lights - and thus explore new modes of sensing, acting and building relationships.


History and Contemporary Developments

With the adaptation of personal computers in the 1980s, new possibilities for the integration of the digital medium into live performance on the stage or in installations were offered. On the one hand, video art, video dance, and electronic music had already provided various models for interactive, process-oriented composition, choreography for the camera, and closed-circuit/feed-back constellations, reaching back to the 1960s and the rise of happenings, improvisation, postmodern dance, and art and technology collaborations (9 evenings: theatre and engineering, 1966). John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg, Trisha Brown, Helio Oiticica, Lygya Clark and others explored earlier forms of relational aesthetics which also drove the cybernetic and telematic works of Roy Ascott, Sherrie Rabinowitz and Kit Golloway or the pioneering interactive installations of artists like Lynn Hershmann, Ken Feingold, Grahame Weinbren, Jeffrey Shaw, David Rokeby and Eduardo Kac. Experiments with the developing internet led to online communities and distributed art made from databases; interactive writing suggested new models for artistic creativity. On the other hand, the more recent trends in interaction design and human computer interface design (HCI) move towards mobile and wireless technologies; in music and dance this has generated a huge expansion in the use of the digital medium in creating media-rich performances (utilizing motion capture, motion sensing, 3D animation, and VE). Immersive forms are inspired by games and multi-user online environments, but also by biofeedback experiments (e.g. Char Davies' Osmose) which link interface design, mapping, programming, and engineering with the cognitive and behavioral sciences. Increasingly today, motion analyses performed with digital technologies are also used in neuroscience and other research areas using scanning and 3D modeling/visualization.

At the turn of the 21st century, overlapping interests in related fields - film, electronic music, digital art, science and technology, design, engineering, robotics, telecommunications - advance the understanding of the complementary thinking processes that drive new conceptual models influenced by the computer's ubiquitous information processing capabilities, the "language of new media" (Lev Manovich). Like music before it, dance and live art incorporate instruments (cameras, video-projectors, microphones, sensors, computers) and software tools which allow processing control of the various components of any performance event.


Practices and Strategies


The digital convergence of performative enactment, coding, and interface design in interactive, real-time performance processing can be considered a "performance system." The widespread use of VE or augmented reality and of wearable computers invites observation of the performer in states of immersion affecting expression and experience, as it suggests recognition of the system's behaviors or states which are often referred to as "emergent", "liquid," or "self-organizing." As a result live performance is progressively directed towards the digital site, an environment that has become sensitive through interfaces and is not merely the space surrounding a subject, but the entire complex of the physical and relational conditions within which the subject finds herself, acts and defines her behavior.

Contemporary conceptual models for such a system explicitly link the digital to the bio-physiological and neurological realm, addressing cognitive and behavioral characteristics in the response, as well as evaluating the iterative interaction design in terms of different goals or activities that need to be supported, and of various kinds of efficiency and usability or aesthetic/kinesthetic enjoyment desired in the user experience. The performer, in this sense, is always a user, player and participant in an operating system.

Digital Performance, existing within the site created by the interface of body and technology, can thus be considered transitional, as the emergent qualities of the system are always subject to being re-combined, re-programmed and re-experienced differently. Therefore, one need not look at human performers in the interface as separate from an interactive software system or programming environment (e.g. MAX/MSP, VNS, BigEye, Isadora, KeyWorx, Choreograph, EyesWeb, etc). Rather, the entire interface environment can be understood as digital performance process, as emergent system. This opens up new perspectives for an aesthetics of digital interactivity which recognizes the technical context of programming languages and the artistic challenges faced when physically working with real-time processing.

The multimedia stage performance, interactive installation, CD-ROM, video project, software writing, networked performance or dance animation no longer belong to different genres. They are phases of an open-ended process, like the elements of a flexible, mutable spatio-temporal mosaic which offer unprecedented creative opportunities to collaborating, distributed authors and audiences to design together the synaesthetic mapping of all possible performances of the contemporary.

In regard to practices and strategies, three models of the "digital site" (scene numerique) can be distinguished (cf. Emanuele Quinz):

(1) the first model has to do with the real environment: the site itself made sensitive and intelligent by being interfaced through motion capture or sensing systems. Various materializations stem from that model and implicate different degrees of interactivity and audience participation: they range from interactive installations such as Reactive Environments (e.g. Very Nervous System by David Rokeby, 1983-1995 or the Studio Azzuro's Ambienti Sensibili) to the Intelligent Stage (Robb Lovell) or Unstablelandscape (Marlon Barrios Solano).

(2) the second model concerns Virtual Environments. The work of Yacov Sharir (Dancing with the Virtual Dervish, 1996) as far as dance is concerned as well as the research of Mark Reaney in the theatre have both explored that domain. There are also hybrid forms in between the first and the second model (called Augmented Reality or Mixed Reality, for example in the public gaming pieces of Blast Theory or the responsive architectures of Gretchen Schiller/Suzan Kozel, Sponge, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer).

(3) the third model refers to choreographies or to interactive dramatics that are entirely digitalized: from CD-ROMS (like Andrea Davidson's La Morsure, 1998-2001) and DVD-ROMs, to motion-capture-derived animations (like Paul Kaiser's Ghostcacthing) and on-line video installations and net art creations.


Critical Contexts/Further References

Digital Performance can be contextualized in terms of the history of performance involving computational technology and the critical theories surrounding it. Important publications and case studies offering theories and concepts (such as theories of the body and subjectivity, interactivity, digital objects and practices, immersivity, compositional strategies and methodologies, cyberculture, cybernetics and posthumanism), can be found at:




Ascott. Roy, Telematic Embrace: Visionary Theories of Art, Technology and Consciousness. Edited and with an essay by Edward A. Shanken. Berkeley: Univ. of California, 2003.

Birringer, Johannes, Media and Performance: along the border. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1998

Bourriaud, Nicolas Relational Aesthetics. Dijon 2002.

Carver, Gavin and Colin Beardon, eds., New Visions in Performance: The Impact of Digital Technologies. Lisse: Svets & Zeitlinger, 2004.

Chapple, Freda & Kattenbelt, Chiel, eds., Intermediality in Theatre and Performance. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2006. Digital Performance, ed. Emanuele Quinz,, Anomalie Digital_arts, no.2 (2002)

Dinkla, Soeke and Martina Leeker, eds., Dance and Technology/ Tanz und Technologie: Moving towards Media Productions - Auf dem Weg zu medialen Inszenierungen. Berlin: Alexander Verlag, 2002

. Hansen, Mark B.N. New Philosophy for New Media. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004.

Hayles, Katherine N., How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Manovich, Lev, The Language of New Media, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001.

Menicacci, Armando and Emanuele Quinz, eds., La scena digitale: nuovi media per la danza. Bolzano, Italy: Marsilio, 2001.

Toop, David, Haunted Weather: Music, Silence and Memory. London: Serpent's Tail, 2004.


Johannes Birringer is a choreographer and artistic director of AlienNation Co., a multimedia ensemble based in Houston ( He has created numerous dance-theatre works, digital media installations and site-specific performances in collaboration with artists in Europe, North America, Latin America, and China. He is the author of several books, including Media and Performance: along the border (1998), Performance on the Edge: transformations of culture (2000), and Dance Technologies: Digital Performance in the 21st Century (forthcoming). After creating the dance and technology program at The Ohio State University, he now directs the Interaktionslabor Göttelborn in Germany ( and the Telematics DAP Lab at Brunel University.