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!