Design And Performance Lab
New Visions in Performance: The Impact of Digital Technologies,
Gavin Carver and Colin Beardon (eds), (2004)
Lisse: Swets & Zeitlinger, 195 pp. (Hardback)
reviewed by Johannes Birringer
Published in the Netherlands and edited by a scene designer (University of Kent, UK) and a professor of computer graphic design (University of Waikato, New Zealand), this astonishing book offers a timely and challenging investigation of contemporary integrations of digital technologies into theatrical and screen-based performance. Colin Beardon, who is editor of this new series of 'Innovations in Art and Design' and also co-edits the journal Digital Creativity, teams up with Gavin Carver to bring together a range of vivid descriptions and analyses of creative work by artists and academics which spans traditional theatre, dance, textile design, film and computer games.
The eleven essays are written mostly by practitioners directly involved in the conceptual and methodological development of mediated performance and interactive 'systems'. Some of them are co-authored, as we generally expect to see it in laboratory research publications in the sciences. We are less accustomed to see research methodologies or creative experiments theoretically reflected by artists and practice-based research teams, and here the book makes an important contribution. In their concluding essay, the editors provide an eloquent synopsis of the diverse poetics and conceptual frameworks employed by the practitioners, identifying various common themes and concerns that the authors share in their use of digital systems and real-time processing. This 'introduction' to certain core issues - virtuality, the mediated body, liveness, manipulated time-space, interactivity and audience involvement - is coyly put at the end of the book, ostensibly to avoid postulating a unifying theory of new technology in performance or to lump the diversity of emerging digital art and media practices together. Their careful parsing of overlapping concerns between theatre, dance, media artists, designers and programmers is of considerable value, and along with the more scholarly essays by Steve Dixon, Jackie Smart and Christie Carson at least begins to also provide a small, if underdeveloped, sense of historical context for these current creative research and production processes the evolution of which we have seen for several decades.
Digital media, even as the hardware and software potentials of computer-assisted design, real-time processing, and Internet-based communications increase constantly in the global spreading of readily available low- and high-end technologies, are not a new phenomenon for performance, after all, as Mark Coniglio rightly points out ('The Importance of Being Interactive'), since we tend to read them through our analogue habits and our prior understanding of photographic, filmic, and electro-acoustic techniques such as projection, amplification and distortion, etc. The manipulation of time and space in imaging media has been studied and analysed (in art and film theory). The transformational technological innovations of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are common knowledge in our cultures today. 'New visions' in performance are also indebted to older forms of media production, whether we think of the use of film projection and lighting in the theatre or of the many avant-garde experiments in film, electronic music, and early video and installation art. Coniglio, referring back to improvisations between jazz musicians and the essential fluidity of live performance where virtuoso artists can 'invent' responses and skilfully manipulate the musical phrasing right there in front of our eyes and ears, admits that digital data, once stored in the computer, appear 'antithetical to the fluid and ever changing nature of live performance' (p. 6) unless the programming of an interactive improvisatory environment allows the dancer (Coniglio works with the New York-based dance company Troika Ranch) the same virtuosic command over her instrument. He then confirms his dedication to 'unrepeatable' live interactive performance, cautioning us to be weary of claims that the 'use of sensory technologies and digital media offers some kind of radical shift in the nature of live performance itself' (p. 11).
Interestingly, Coniglio is the only contributor in the book who addresses the issue of virtuosic performance head-on, even though Dixon's 'The Digital Double', with its references to several widely-known and distinguished artists (Cunningham, Stelarc, Nam June Paik, Chico McMurtrie, Yacov Sharir, Igloo, Company in Space, Marcel-Lí, Anthúnez Roca), and Smart's detailed, evocative reading of 'The Technology of the Real' in Wayne McGregor's Nemesis (Random Dance Co) come close to remembering that the power of performance, to a large extent, relies on the skill and ingenuity of the performer, and not only of the 'system'. Jools Gilson-Ellis and Richard Povall, in a tantalizing dialogue about their collaborative partnership ('Halving Angles: Technology's Poem'), also remember that theatre and dance have literary and poetic ancestors. Gilson-Ellis impressively plays with language and metaphor and draws on her deep-seated interest in poetry and mystery. 'My writings always had a bent for the magical, but the experience of working with technologies in this way makes me a different kind of writer I demand a poetic alchemy from the digital' (p. 58).
Povall, who programmes the sonic landscapes of music and words, the 'quality' of the sound which Gilson-Ellis activates and 'moves' through her physical performance (tracked by cameras), argues that they build 'poetic systems' - systems that can capture 'the essence of the performing body, turning that information into sonic and visual gesture. In these systems, the centre of attention is not the objective body-state. The focus instead is the subjective body - the phenomenal dancer' (p. 57). Povall and Gilson-Ellis emphasize that their aesthetics of movement has become the aesthetics of an emergent poetic narrative, which in current work such as Spinstren is the result of many years of experimentation. Generating poetry in real time, playing with 'voice ghosts', Gilson-Ellis argues, allows the dancer to navigate between the present tense of voicing and moving, and the past tense of writing and recorded voice, resisting the difference between past and present. This confusion of temporal realities, she claims, is 'an unsettling enchantment' (p. 58).
Several contributors express a similar interest in ghostly doubles and virtual enchantments, without necessarily commenting on the spiritual or sacred roots of theatre and dance or alluding to non-western cultural traditions (the scope of authors in this book is decidedly northern). Dixon, opening his essay with a reference to Artaud before examining the 'theatre and its digital double', finds various manifestations of 'virtual magic' in the sense in which digital and telematic technologies create 'other realms' through the (1) double as reflection or video copy; (2) double as alter-ego or cyborg; (3) double as spiritual emanation and phantom; and (4) double as manipulable mannequin. Avatars based on motion-capture animation, bodies without organs (a by now familiar reference to Deleuze/Guattari filtered through Stelarc's much quoted joke about the 'obsolete body'), particle bodies, replicants, cadavers, mechanical dolls and robotic manipulations make their appearance in Dixon's impressively wide-ranging analysis of figuration in contemporary performance. Freud's notion of the uncanny comes back to haunt audiences who, Dixon speculates, actually love this digital world since the 'double' serves as a 'conceptual template' for our late commodity culture's obsession with synthetic replacements (p. 28). Dixon's point is hard hitting; when he quotes Matthew Causey - 'to see one's self is to demolish oneself in an autopsy of perception' (p. 29) - he approaches the unreal through a lens that differs markedly from Gilson-Ellis's storytelling based on folk mythology, Tony Dove's endorsement of ghosts as virtual counterparts (enacted by the user) entering and inhabiting the filmic space in her interactive installations (Artificial Changelings, Spectropia), Jorgen Callesen, Marika Kajo and Katrine Nilsen's 'Performance Animation Toolbox' which uses slapstick ghost stories in their public installation Spirits on Stage, or Michael Nitsche and Maureen Thomas's redeployment of computer games for real-time interaction with avatar models purloined from movies.
Callesen, Kajo and Nilsen, Nitsche and Thomas, along with Jeff Burke and Jared Stein, perhaps reflect most clearly the overwhelming tenor of this book which is concerned less with content, meaning, and the challenges faced by performers who need to create meaningful expression within responsive environments, but with the design of interactive systems as such. Having stated this, I want to emphasize that such a book on interface design for performance and participatory digital art is long overdue. New Visions in Performance offers a tremendous resource for opening a complex debate among performers, directors, choreographers, composers, and programmers, regarding not only the research and methodologies for interaction design, but also the potentially new aesthetic forms and compositional repertoires, performance techniques, and cultural sensibilities which may or may not reside in what the commercial industry, somewhat despairingly, calls content development. The closest link to the market, in this book, is struck by Carson's essay 'Turning Conventional Theatre Inside Out: Democratizing the Audience Relationship', in which she argues for the educational values of the Internet and digital information systems, enabling institutional theatres (here examples are the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre, the Globe Theatre, and CalArts Center for New Theater) and cultural producers the kind of interactive portals that encourage the wider population of audiences to have a role in the process of creative production. Carson applauds the Globe Theatre's Globelink website (with its unusual 'Adopt an actor' scheme), which along with live workshops, lectures, tours and performances builds practice-led resources for the study of Shakespearean drama based on a democratic ethos of 'audience-driven interactive experience' (p. 159).
Carson represents an educational theatre position, but content (drama), professional craft (acting, stage design), and audience interest in the theatrical process are hardly negligible for a debate on 'new visions' if indeed Coniglio's claim about the 'importance of being interactive' is earnest and, above all, reflects adequately the new models in current interdisciplinary digital performance, which the editors summarize as being overwhelmingly predicated on 'virtuality' (p. 167) and on the 'body' being digitized, its movements and enunciations captured and coded for algorithmic processing (p. 171). Carver and Beardon here draw a crucial distinction:
In its early stages, any new technology will be understood primarily as technique.
That is to say, the developer will communicate the intended use of particular gadgets to artists who then incorporates [sic] these into their traditional practice, or maybe exploits [sic] them in some new experimental pieces of work. As the techniques become more numerous and artistic experience grows, so a more
sophisticated relationship between technology and art form develops. This is the stage we now appear to be at and, hence, it is no longer appropriate to analyse the chapters in this book in terms of the digital technologies that they employ (motion capture, Internet, complex algorithms, etc.). Rather, we need to move to a more conceptual level so that we can talk about the technology in terms of models of use. (p. 167)
If we follow the logic of this argument, we can assume that the emphasis in digital performance, particularly interactive or networked installations, has shifted to the design of programmable and manipulable environments. Kjell Yngve Petersen ('The Emergence of Hyper-reality in Performance') focuses on the 'use of cameras, computers and video-projectors in the stage setting' to examine the visual aspects of performance 'being infused by telematic and real-time technology' (pp. 31-32). This infusion allows designers to develop polyfocal viewpoints and scenic montages with multiple perspectives, displacements of time, duration, and place. Stage reality, consequently, comments and redefines its own notion of reality 'and becomes a hyper-reality situation' (p. 34). Petersen includes illustrations of such augmented space-time, and bases his theorizations on notions of metafiction derived from 'dynamic semiotics' (p. 34).
Similarly, Smart's essay on 'Wayne McGregor's Nemesis and the Ecology of Perception' interrogates notions of 'the human real' and 'presence' as constructed concepts, arguing persuasively that the choreographer disrupts conventional hierarchies of theatrical signifying systems, for example dislodging movement from its 'privileged position' within dance and giving more weight to sound, lighting design, and the virtual spaces created by video and 3DVR (3D Virtual Reality) projections (p. 43). McGregor, she argues, does not oppose the dancing body to the electronic images and virtual spaces, but strives for an 'ecology' of fluid and unstable relations. Smart's careful analysis of the dramaturgical structure of Nemesis is the most brilliant and sustained reading of a stage work in the entire book. She is also the only contributor who comments, with some sense of critical objectivity, on the movement language and the dancing within McGregor's choreography, especially in her concluding remarks on the performers' struggle to deal with the technological costumes (prostheses) they have to wear at the end:
The effect of the prosthetic limbs, then, works in conjunction with the video projections of the 'real' dancers to create a series of perceptual dichotomies between ability and disability, the human and the non-human, live presence and technological mediation, reality and fiction (pp. 51-52)
Although she does not follow through her references to the post-human, which in light of her and Dixon's remarks on the post-biological obsessions in contemporary performance might have suggested a critical engagement with Katherine N. Hayles' influential How We Became Posthuman (1999), I enjoyed reading her essay against Jane Harris's, who in her dialogue with Bernard Walsh ('Sorcerer's Apprentice: Reactive Digital Forms of Body and Cloth in Performance') stands out as a design artist working entirely with three-dimensional (3D) computer graphics animation. Her digital images of moving garments, which clearly reference choreographed bodies and how such bodies move inside dresses and affect the motion of cloth, have eliminated the live body completely. Paradoxically, the invisibility of real dancers in her animation, derived from motion capture and a lengthy CG process which builds the visual kinetics of the animated garments, evokes absent bodyness: 'cloth behaviour' implies bodies and other reactive objects (p. 140). Harris also emphasizes her conceptual exploration of such disappearance and reappearance, and her emerging interest in testing real-time use of animated movement data in the context of live performances.
After so much talk of responsive environments in the design process for interfaces, the models that presuppose audience participation are much less convincing, since here the book lacks any theoretical and empirical engagement with user behaviour, effectivity, emotional affect and social or aesthetic consequence. Although interactivity is postulated as one of the distinct features of digital performance using real-time or telematic processing and feedback loops, the role of the (unrehearsed) participants, the aesthetic function of such unrehearsed behaviour, and the criteria for shared authorship or a successful interface remain unexamined. Toni Dove ('Haunting the Movie: Embodied/Sensory Cinema) wants to dismantle narrative cinematic language to arrive at new methods of story construction. She clearly builds an active viewer into her system which responds to 'natural body movements' allowing the 'transient' (Dove's term for the user) to 'shape the onscreen action', 'alter and inhabit dialogues', navigate and 'play the movie instrument' (pp. 114, 116). While Dove's explanation of her concepts is captivating, the 'theatrical action by the performer' is rather unclear, and when I witnessed user behaviour at her installation of Artificial Changelings, I did not see any of the subtleties and enchantment ('the trance-like state' of being immersed, lost in space and time) she claims. I saw users trying to control the movie character with clumsy gestures that mirrored the gestures of the movie character.
The problem, of course, is that any unsuspecting user needs to learn the 'rules' of the interface, and he or she does this by staring at the screen to see how a gesture or stepping on floor pads controls the projection (or the sound that is triggered). We see this rather poignantly in Callesen, Kajo and Nilsen's illustrations and explications of their video-tracking system. All the prototypes of their interaction design are based on simplistic and mundane improvisatory games ('Heaven and Hell', 'SheMonster', etc.), and even if their 'impersonated stage' (p. 77) becomes a storyteller, I fail to see what interested them in the story or the human behaviour. Nitsche and Thomas ('Play it again, Sam: Film Performance, Virtual Environments and Game Engines') ask their students to create virtual location designs (using video-game 3D engines) and camera positions for a scene from Casablanca, which is then dramatically enacted live via a LAN multi-player game engine. Although fascinating as an experiment in theatrical adaptation of a 3D game world, fusing computer games, cinema, and acting, the author's definition of 'dramatic narrative' in performance (of Bergman and Bogart avatars) in the 'expressive space' of real-time 3D virtual environments leaves much to be desired, especially after we find out that, hilariously, the game software inserts weird automated behaviour that cannot be controlled by the players.
Finally, Burke and Stein's 'Theatre of Context: Digital's Absurd Role in Dramatic Literature' makes the most improbable claim, namely that interactive 'hypertext design' for theatre (using demographic data and audience responses collected into a database via website and interactive stations in theatre 'galleries' before the show and during the intermission) can be effectively incorporated into dramatic literature and the performance architecture. Their prototype is called 'Iliad Project', and although they propose that effective participation requires that the audience community becomes aware of their presence within the play through factual information about their identities, I cannot fathom, from the examples they give (e.g. statistical evidence of home addresses, customized to the attending audience; snapshots of facial reactions during the show; etc.), how their dramatic text is composed, what the dramaturgy is, and what the actors will do with the database. As they refer to 'our Iliad', I am not even sure whether they mean Homer's epic, some adaptation they plan to write, or some improvisatory reality TV punning on Bush's War against Terror (Helena, the theft of enjoyment?). Their notion of the 'absurd' (linking 'our Iliad' to Jarry, Ionesco and Beckett) remains completely abstract, much like their proposal that 'rules and algorithms built into new dramatic literature can define the gathering' of input and output data (p. 104).
Carver and Beardon give us a rich collection of 'models'. Many of the analyses of virtuality, the digitized body, and interaction design in performance are provocative and well written; there is a wealth of information on cross-over research and programming possibilities, even if the emphasis is on programming ideas (and to some extent, on functionality), and not on performance aesthetics and the experience of the dancer, actor or musician in such responsive environments. In other words, performers will have a hard time finding inspiration here, unless they can imagine what Gilson-Ellis's metaphor of (almost) falling from the trapeze and catching the (song under the) breath means. Computer scientists and engineers, but also composers and video artists, will wonder why their discourses have been largely neglected, even as digital sound and projective media (in installations, clubs) play an enormously significant role in contemporary art and popular culture (there is not a single mention of the role of VJ/DJ and sampling, nor of the various creative software and open-source experimentations in art 'made of databases' or distributed media). But I am less concerned with what is missing; obviously there are more books to be written on this subject. What intrigues me - given the dearth of actual artistic works under discussion - is that no one except the team of Callesen et al. problematizes the fact that much of what is under discussion is practice-based research within universities, and that the design teams ought to distinguish 'between prototypes used in research and prototypes used in production and between different types of audiences for the prototypes' (p. 91). Callesen et al. realized the weakness of their initial virtual design methodology: 'the problem with artistic practice-based research in academic environments is that the research team often lack the practical knowledge, experience and artistic skills to be able to define the research questions and carry out meaningful experiments' (p. 81). They addressed the issue by inviting performers and directors into their workshop; ultimately, their methodological formulations are sound and to the point, even if the actual work strikes me as weak. There is a strange irony in this, since so much of the good writing on virtual performance and interactive design comes from the practitioners and workshop directors themselves.
Johannes Birringer is a choreographer and artistic director of AlienNation Co., a multimedia ensemble based in Houston (www.aliennationcompany.com). 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 (http://interaktionslabor.de) and the Telematics DAP Lab at Brunel University.