Theatre and Technology

Performance and Technology: Practices of Virtual Embodiment and Interactivity

Susan Broadhurst and Josephine Machon (eds)

Palgrave, Macmillan, 2011. 203pp.

Originally published in hardback in 2006, this absorbing volume contains a wide range of essays on performance practices that use new technologies such as motion capture, 3D virtual environments, artificial intelligence and even artificial biological systems (in the case of the Tissue Culture and Art project). The book’s broad sweep captures some of the energy, anxiety and excitement emanating from a range of genuinely exploratory projects, which raise crucial questions about the ways technology transforms our understanding of performance, human perception and, perhaps most importantly, the relationship between the corporeal and the virtual. Most chapters have a practical orientation, and contain extensive descriptions of specific performances, providing a compelling snapshot of the current state of play in this nascent field. Broadhurst and Machon point out that while the various projects in their book use a multitude of technologies, they are almost all engaged with the digital, which require ‘a new mode of analysis and interpretation which foregrounds and celebrates the inherent tensions between the physical and the virtual (xvii)’.

The book begins with Susan Melrose’s ‘Bodies Without Bodies’, perhaps the publication’s most provocative and theoretically dense chapter. Melrose interrogates the meaning and function of the word ‘body’ in writings about performance, professing ignorance about what this word signifies in such contexts (implicitly chastising those who use the term loosely, and without knowledge of its complex meanings). Drawing on a rich range of theoretical sources, such as Heidegger, Spinoza, Zizek, Deleuze and Guattari, Melrose unpacks the word’s etymology, noting that uses of the term ‘bring with them a veritable network of values (measures) and potential unfoldings (9).’ As I read her, Melrose, in her characteristically opaque prose, expresses an anxiety about the tendency for scholars to write about new technology with reference to ‘old’ concepts. More specifically, she notes that academics display a particularly ‘ontic’ disposition in their writing by valorising the familiar without comprehending how conventional understandings of terms like ‘performance’ and ‘audience’ are radically transformed by the virtual. ‘Even where “posthuman” sympathies are evidenced,’ she observes, ‘the orders of expert writing wins out, by maintaining certain sorts of spectator perceptions (11).’ This sort of writing, Melrose, contends is produced by scholars, and therefore appeals to those who occupy the hallowed halls of academe. Melrose expresses in this, and other recent writings, an anxiety about the gulf separating academic discourses on performance from what she calls ‘professional’ or ‘expert’ intuitions. I accept Melrose’s general point that the scholarly analysis of performance produces ontic knowledge — that is, formal descriptions of properties — as opposed to what Elizabeth Grosz describes as ‘an attuned empiricism that does not reduce its components and parts but expands them to connect this object to the very universe itself (13).’ However, I am not convinced that these two forms of knowing are mutually exclusive, nor do I accept that ‘ontic’ analysis is the sole preserve of academics. It is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain the distinction between scholars and practitioners as increasing numbers of artists enter the university as higher degree students in performance studies and cognate disciplines.

Steve Dixon’s chapter ‘Truth-Seeker’s Allowance: Digitising Artaud’ lacks the sophistication and elegance of Melrose’s argument. He mostly just describes work that uses new media technologies to enable the quest for artistic truth with specific reference to Artaud. Dixon’s company, The Chameleon Group, use video projections together with live performance ‘to explore and expose serious existential issues, altered mental states, and metaphysical notions (19)’. From what I can gather this mainly involves juxtaposing projected images that play with scale and point-of-view with conventional ‘live’ performance modalities. This is probably the weakest contribution to the book. I found Dixon’s caricature of Derrida appalling — Derrida is not the enemy of ‘truth’, nor is he a disrespectful critic of the theatre, as Dixon suggests. I get the sense that Dixon has not actually read Derrida, read him very badly (I’m not sure he gets Artaud, either). The chapter is also marred by its somewhat mundane focus on video projections, which hardly constitute cutting-edge technology.

Several contributions deal specifically with dance.  Most notably, John Cook examines the ‘transformative role of technology in kinetic expression (31),’ and provides a fascinating argument about the ways video cameras do more than merely record the performance event. He argues that the camera may facilitate a kinaesthetic exchange between dancer and audience, and blur the boundaries between different orders of space and time. Carol Brown explores the philosophical implications of choreography that works in virtual and real space simultaneously, and moves effortlessly between critical and poetic registers. Robert Weschler’s refreshingly direct ‘guide’ for those about to rock with motion tracking technology also makes a significant contribution to the dance performance and technology coupling by sounding a prescient note of caution about viewing new technology an inherently interesting and necessary component of innovative performance. ‘Audiences are tiring of digital effects,’ he claims, ‘and the interactive performing scene is in somewhat of a crisis as it struggles to define and develop artistic applications and rationales for the use of technology in general (61)’. This point is reinforced by Johannes Birringer’s essay on Multiplayer Online Performance Spaces. Among other things, Birringer interrogates the notion of interactivity, and makes an important distinction between ‘complex interaction’ and the ‘shallow clicking of button’ (47). Anyone who had the misfortune to witness the Border Project’s recent performance of Half Real at the Melbourne festival of the Arts will sympathise with Birringer’s account of interactivity. The best contemporary on-line and console computer games are compelling because they are immersive and interactive. They make the player feel more like an actor than a spectator. Half-Real was half-baked because the Border Project used the most superficial aspects of gaming. We got the iconography of gaming rather than the experience (they could certainly benefit from reading this chapter).

Susan Broadhurst’s brief account of her ‘Intelligence, Interaction, Reaction and Performance’ project deals with artificial intelligence (AI), motion capture and 3D interactive technology makes a bold, but largely unsubstantiated claim about how new technological ‘advancements’ create liminal spaces between the virtual and the real that have the power to generate ‘new experimental forms and practices (149)’. This may be the case, but Broadhurst’s description of her artistic work fails to provide compelling evidence about how these liminal spaces actually constitute new forms of practice. She concedes that her work placed more emphasis on ‘the process of adaptation, how the performances developed and so on, rather than on the finished product (147),’ and doesn’t fully develop her argument regarding how AI might function as a form of what Jennifer Parker-Starbuck calls ‘subject’ technology. That is, technology that is actually capable of ‘performing’ as opposed to functioning as a mere effect.

The last third of the book contains a mix of the banal (Christie Carson’s ‘Technology as a Bridge to Audience Participation’) the perfunctory (Philip Auslander banging on about ‘liveness’ and ‘dominant media’) and the plain bizarre. Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr’s contribution to the book deals with their Tissue Culture and Art project moves into the realm of bioart, and, by extension, biopolitics. Basically, their work involves creating what they call semi-living organisms. That is, ‘living biological systems that are artificially designed and need human and/or technological intervention in their construction, growth and maintenance (154)’. These ‘semi-living’ entities are presented mostly in a series of installations that confound simple oppositions between life and death, the human, and the animal, nature and culture, thereby raising a series of complex ethical questions about the connections between biotechnology and art. Many readers will be familiar with the piece ‘Extra Ear – ¼ Scale’ exhibited at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in 2003, which involved Catts and Zurr collaborating with Stelarc. The controversy generated by the NGV’s request that the creative team refrain from using human tissue, and declare that the work does not raise ethical issues underscores the unsettling effect of the installation.

The authors’ account of their victimless series, which involves floating the intriguing possibility of eating victimless meat, is equally contentious, conjuring Frankenstein-like anxieties on the part of the project’s detractors. In short, Catts and Zurr take a biopsy from a living animal, and use it to grow edible flesh while the donor animal continues to live. ‘There is,’ they claim, ‘a growing discrepancy between our cultural perception of life and what we know about life scientifically and what we do with life technologically (166)’. In many ways, this observation points to the need for a more rigorous engagement with the ethical and philosophical issues generated by new technology as differences between the virtual and actual, the human and non-human, the corporeal and non-corporeal break down, and technology functions as a form of biopolitics — the exercise of sovereign power over life itself.

Shit I half like!

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Woyzeck

Woyzeck

Malthouse Theatre, 2009

Director: Michael Kantor

While this production isn’t totally awful, it is full of bombastic technological stunts that disguise directorial ineptitude. The outrageously elaborate set is the star of the show, and is a testament to the work’s high production values, which I can’t help thinking detract from the stark themes of Buchner’s classic text. This high voltage approach masks a poverty of ideas by foregrounding its rock ‘n’ roll aesthetic.

I found the music, composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, passable, but nowhere near as good as their score for The Proposition, nor as good as Tom Waits’ songs for Robert Wilson’s version of the Play. In many ways, the play is very similar in theme and tone to the murder ballads that Nick Cave performs so convincingly. Despite coming off second best to Waits, the music actually makes the spectacle bearable, and I was very impressed with Tim Rogers, an Australian Rock icon, who handled his musical and dramatic duties with an arrogant swagger that was the highlight of an otherwise mediocre night at the theatre. I was less than impressed by the way Kantor interpreted Buchner’s text. The play is about sex, betrayal, poverty, but these themes were often obscured by a frenetic directorial style, which alternated between being sympathetic to the play’s thematic concerns, and descending into self-indulgent pretension. I can’t help feeling that the director either didn’t understand the text, or trust it to hold the audience’s attention. He relies too heavily on gratuitous stunts to create a sense of energy and activity, but only succeeds in creating a cacophonous mess.

Woyzeck is a desperate man forced to subject himself to brutal medical experiments in order to support his lover, Marie, and their bastard child. He is a simple man who is driven partly by primal jealousy and partly by a psychotic rage that may be the result of his dietary deprivations in the name of medical science. Marie on the other hand represents the whore/Madonna stereotype. She is a mother who exhibits tender maternal feelings for her child (in at least one key scene excised from the Malthouse version) while lusting after the Drum Major — an alpha male stud in Georg Buchner’s text, but a grotesque old man in the production under review. This deliberate refashioning of Buchner’s character is just plain bizarre, for it changes a key element of the play: Marie’s active sexuality. She stares at the Drum major with lust and desire, demonstrating that the maternal coexists with the carnal. Of course, Marie’s infidelity eventually drives Woyzeck to kill his lover into a fit of murderous rage, and this one of the few scenes to hold my attention and make good use of the very expensive set. However, the director doesn’t do enough to make the audience aware of the political dimension of the act — the play’s treatment of class is lost among the silly Santa Claus costumes and other bits of theatrical frippery.

More shit I didn’t like.

Total Masala Slammer

I wrote this review in 2002. It’s one of the many scraps of writing I never published. Needless to say, this is an example of shit I don’t like.

Total Masala Slammer

 

 

 

 

Recipe By: Michael Laub/Remote Control productions

Serving Size: 5 000

Preparation Time: 36 months

 

Amount         Measure                      Ingredient

___________________________________________________

1                   ounce                           Orientalism

1                   ounce                           Eastern Wisdom

3                   ounces                         Teutonic Cool (or to fill)

1                   ounce                           American Bluff

 

Preparation Method

Fill an auditorium full of middle-class culture vultures; blend with classical Indian dance, selective Bollywood film conventions, postmodern irony and canonical German literature. Mix with a multicultural performing group. Add a sprinkle of orientalism, and stir for 21/2 hours. Makes a good excuse to be in the vicinity of the world famous speigaltent.

* * * *

Total Masala Slammer confounded my expectations. Perhaps I took its title too literally. I expected a heady blend of hot Indian spices, with the intoxicating wallop of a potent alcoholic beverage. What I got was a rather tame melange of pre-packaged Pataks and a Claytons cocktail. But maybe I was expecting too much.

The first thing that surprised me about the performance was its scale. Rather than present the audience with a cluttered space filled with the trappings of what we have come to expect from global blockbuster performances (extravagant light shows, manifold television screens, intricate sets), Laub and his company opted for an open space with relatively little ornamentation (at least in comparison to some of the other festival productions such as Gensi). The only concession to large-scale spectacle was the different coloured curtains that provided the backdrop for the performance (every so often a curtain would crash to the ground revealing another curtain of a different hue in its wake — the united colours of Remote Control productions?). With the exception of a single projection screen supported by scaffolding, and a few strategically placed chairs and microphones, the space was designed to accommodate the expansive dance sequences.

The performance began with one of the two American male dancer/actors addressing the audience directly, and explaining that the ensemble would quote from Goethe’s text from time to time in a pretty casual, offhanded way (he fingered a dog-eared copy of Young Werther to emphasise the point). What followed was indeed a masala slammer of sorts, for the company juxtaposed a few extracts from a Bollywood film, with classical Indian music and dance (Kathak), various bits of text delivered in English and German, audition videos from India for what I presume was the production in front of us, recitations and dramatisations of Goethe’s tragic, if somewhat sentimental, tale of unrequited love and a highly ironic Bollywood soap opera.

In many ways, the individual components of the performance worked well in themselves. The classical Indian dancers and musicians were particularly compelling. The western performers were charming, disarming in a sly, knowing way and overtly erotic. The Bollywood soap opera was vaguely amusing, but its one joke grew pretty thin with repetition. In any case, I’m not convinced that its possible to equate Bollywood histrionics with ‘bad acting. The company performed the extracts from Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther with a heavy dose of irony to fine comic effect, highlighting the similarities between Goethe’s celebrated work and Bollywood soap.

 

However, while the performance effectively integrated the vocabularies of several different art forms — film, dance, theatre, music, and drama — it did not surmount the cultural and political divisions between east and west convincingly. For example, Bollywood dance sequences are supposed to be erotic — they must convey sexual relationships without resorting to representing any kind of sexual act forbidden by India’s strict censorship codes. Eroticism marked the performances of the westerners in the cast, whose dance vocabulary consisted of various bumps, grinds and shimmies — one female performer disrobed completely. In contrast, the Indian dancers, particularly the females, were demure, and with one exception covered. Of course, it’s possible to argue the toss about whether the performance of the Indian dancers was actually all the more erotic for its modesty, precision and focus. However, my point is that the energy and overt eroticism of Bollywood dance was present in the Western performers, and almost totally absent in the Indians. At times, I felt as though the Indians were ciphers for a familiar orientalist trope — the exotic, passive, feminised other.

I was also disturbed by the sequences where one of the white females donned headphones in order to reproduce the musical cadences of Indian speech patterns. Now I’m aware the performance as a whole appeared to play with different ethnic accents to highlight their musicality and relationship to movement, but the somewhat cheesy simulacra of Indian speech invoked, for me, the questionable racial stereotypes found in old British sit-coms like Mind Your Language, On the Buses and Curry and Chips.

What is perhaps more disturbing, though, is the fact that for the most part the western and eastern elements did not engage in an equal dialogue. In fact the eastern and western performers rarely interacted. Ultimately, Laub and his charges enlist Indian classical and popular culture to serve a production that never really delivers on its promise to serve a total masala slammer.