Blesok no. 22, August-September, 2001
Theater/Dance and New Media and Information Technologies
It is important to recognise the extent to which 'new media' is not 'new', but is a continuation of an ongoing process of cultural mediatization. Tracing today's technological developments back through the relatively recent 'heyday' periods of consumer devices such as the walkman and VCR, TV remote control, cable and satellite television, polaroid cameras, etc. can help provide a perspective from which to resist the seductions of the 'new media' marketplace. Each of these technologies helped contribute to a shift towards more individually controlled and customized media environments… something 'new media' is quite happy now to capitalize on and even take credit for. Going even further back, the phenomenon of 'telepresence' and 'instantaneous remote communication' was initiated by the first telegraphic transmission in 1845, something easily forgotten as we respond to the excitement generated around email. These are just some examples of the ways in which the past can be connected with the present – and complicate this tendency towards a separation between 'old' and 'new'.
However, this is not to suggest that one should reduce what 'new media' means into an assemblage of historical trajectories, the beginnings, middles and ends of which are somehow recognisable so that the rapidity of change can be understood and the future predicted. On the contrary, radical new forms of culture and society are emerging under the heading of 'new media'. This is partly technology driven: the speed with which digital computer and communications technologies are developing and becoming ubiquitous is unprecedented. In technological terms, 'old' usually refers to analog and 'new' to digital technologies. There is a clear difference between the two which I will not go into for the purposes of this paper. Suffice it to say: Our tools shape us as we shape them. The internet is not simply a faster, more convenient and flexible way of transmitting information – a 'better' telephone. It also contributes to a transformation in the way we understand, imagine and interact with the world. Plenty of studies show that word processing has changed the ways in which we read and write. The impact of developments in digital tools are reflected in the increasing redundancy of such questions as “What is knowledge in the 'information age'?” and “What are national borders in a 'networked global society'?”, and indeed these concepts are being newly defined.
Signs such as these indicate that technological developments are currently playing a very large role in the ongoing process of cultural transformation. However, technology doesn't make this change happen by itself. We do, after all, shape the tools. Social change is an inevitable and necessary part of the transformative process, and society may not change in the direction the technology seems to suggest. 'New Media' pundits and futurists can tend, sometimes, to predict a future technologized world which is more fantasy than reality. I will return to this point later. What I have tried to indicate with these opening paragraphs is that while it is important to recognise that change of some sort is taking place (big changes coming in economics, education and medicine), there is also room for some 'down to earth' speculation. This is what I will try to provide in the following sections.
There are different ways to view the impact of media technology on live performance forms. One could consider the more or less direct application and implementation of new media and information technologies in live performance by looking at ways in which artists are exploring telematic performance spaces, computerized scenographic and lighting design, computerized choreography and performer controlled stage environments, holographic actors/ dancers, etc.
Firstly, evaluations of the impact of media technologies on theater and dance should take into account the degree to which they have already been assimilated into the performing arts. In Western society in particular, media technologies have had a hand in significantly altering the communication environment within which artist/ performer and audience interact. In particular, photography, television, video and film have played key roles in the evolution of how we perceive ourselves and these selves in relation to others (society). For the performance maker, theater director or choreographer, the impact of these technologies on society bleed over into how performances are constructed. We see it in the use of montage in the Tanztheater of Pina Bausch, in the visual scale of Robert Wilson's 'theater of images', in Robert Lepage's multi-layered and non-linear narratives, the Wooster Group's deconstruction/ adaptations of texts and William Forsythe's deconstruction/ adaptations of classical ballet, and in the work of Hans van Manen who has explicitly explored the formalistic relationship of projected and live image on stage (e.g. in his 1979 piece Live).
Secondly, one could consider the ways in which media is being represented in live performance. This brings up the issue of where and when performance functions as a form of social critique of technology, or of 'the machine'. The utopian vision for the future of mankind and technology which existed at the turn of the century was put out of commission by the two world wars. Both during and since that time, art movements and forms of dance and theater have served a crucial function as one of the places from which to critique the relationship between the individual and the machine, society and technology. Today, artistic practice which questions, considers, problematizes and reflects upon the impact of technology… is as necessary as ever before. By the very nature of their untechnological 'liveness', dance and theater forms enjoy a particular place in the arts which should be valued, 'protected' and supported. Also, living bodies and their direct representations still function as primary political repositories of dominating power in the world, and, as in the past, live performance can make a destabilizing contribution where this power is particularly oppressive (as in former Eastern Europe). However, this does NOT mean that all live performance needs to be explicitly political to be 'relevant'… and a wary eye should be cast upon any dominant cultural institution which claims to protect/ support a politically important theater.
One way to be relevant, whether politically, artistically or otherwise, is to respond to the fact that audiences' receptive capabilities are evolving as quickly or even faster than theater and dance. One of the most frequent excuses given for diminishing audience turnout and closing of venues is that theater and/ or dance is quite literally 'boring'. An acclaimed contemporary theater director who, by all accounts, is definitely not boring is Robert Lepage from Quebec. In an interview, Lepage addresses this issue by stating that today's audience consists of “gymnastic” thinkers – able to process and make sense of complex imagery, non-linear and overlapping narratives, multiple characters played by one actor, etc. Lepage talks about “using people's evolving intelligence” when telling stories in the theater. He says “people are extremely up-to-date, even if they are not educated or well cultured. They have a very modern way of connecting things”. (…) if you don't use that … of course they're bored”.
As the younger generation is raised surfing the internet (reports indicate that in the USA some 25% or more of what was formerly 'passive' TV viewing time is spent on the internet) and playing interactive video games – it is even more incumbent upon the forms of live performance to re-invent themselves in response to this.
As I stated earlier, society may not change in the direction the technology seems to suggest.
One might ask, in the age of new media and information technologies will theater and dance become extinct, die out? With so many other attention grasping options for people, web surfing, cd-rom game playing, interactive cinema, 100s of digital television channels, etc. what need and what time will there be for people to go to see theater and dance. With so many possibilities for digitizing, mediatizing and electronicizing the human performer – and placing him or her in a virtual three-dimensional simulated performance space… how long will we continue to follow the 'ritual' of dressing up and going out to attend the spectacle of live performance. In a short paper titled “The Theater and its Future in a Brave New World”, Carl Weber, Professor of Directing and Dramaturgy at Stanford University asks “how can theater evolve its unique mode of 'live' performance so that it will stay competitive in a market where all kinds of electronically created and enhanced performance will dominate the merchandising of entertainment.”
These are understandable fears and reasonable speculations – especially from a competitive, market economy, 'survival of the fittest' perspective. However, I feel that there are indications that 'live' performer will not be replaced in either the near or distant future by the 'virtual' or electronic actor or dancer… and this has to do not with survival of the fittest, but with the survival of something whose value may be in the process of being recognised anew… such may be the case, I propose, with the ritual of attending live performance.
We are historically in a transition phase which is partially signified by an infatuation with the 'new media' worlds of virtual reality, interactive multimedia, cyberspace, hypertexts, global villages, etc. There are already indications that the period of hype is settling down. The initial euphoria for virtual reality is already partially over as indicated in Chapter 7 of Brenda Laurel's updated version of her book Computers as Theater. In 1991, Amsterdam based De Balie organised a Summer Festival in 1991 where it was proposed that the 'body' has “turned out to be the weakest link in technology”. A publication associated with the festival titled Wetware focussed on this theme of the obsolete body, the “human remnant which is left behind in the electronic era”. There have been many such conferences and publications produced in the first half of the last decade of this century from within communities experiencing a period of infatuation with the digital revolution.
For some it may never have been in question, but in the context of developments in 'new media' and digital technologies, the value of material place and physical human contact is reasserting itself. It is easy enough to imagine the internet as a 'public' space – as indicated by the formation of many digital communities and cities around the world. However, the speculation that we might replace 'real' human contact with virtual contact seems to be evaporating. In 1984, William Gibson wrote a book in which he is credited to have coined the term 'cyberspace'. Many embraced Gibson's vision of a virtual world in which all human capacities both mental and physical could fully function as a realisable vision of the future. However, Gibson himself has acknowledged recently in an interview that the world he imagined has not come to pass and it is likely that it never will. His latest book of fiction, Idoru, is still extremely futuristic – but the notion of the body as simply 'meat' has been adapted to fit within more humanistic dimensions.
Indications of this shift can be found in other fields. In a letter to the International Herald Tribune (29 April 1998) entitled “The 'New Economy' Likes Old Community”, Neal Peirce cites the recent work of leading economists who are saying that new technologies are NOT causing the predicted dispersal of working communities to remote, (lovely) rural areas from which they can conduct their business. Rather, the impact of new technologies is now seen in the fluid and adaptive nature of the 'new economy' which functions best and most creatively when people can come together face-to-face… even if only for short, intensive periods.
These are indications of the process of cultural transformation where social change interacts with technological developments. In my opinion, we will see society beginning to sort out its priorities and, perhaps in reaction and resistance to the notion of virtuality (and the nightmare of information overload), the value of our physical and material public space will increase. And we should not forget the growing global support for environmental and ecological efforts to save the future of the physical world.
My proposal here is that as the infatuation with virtual reality and cyberspace diminishes, we will re-embrace live performance events and re-congregate in the material buildings and places which exist for them. In societies overwhelmed with the problems of too much data, theater and dance will function as a 'content-rich' and information filtered events – which will contribute to their survival. These developments will help to partially re-invigorate live performance forms – but by no means can we sit still waiting for this to happen. Dance and theater must simultaneously be working to re-invent themselves as relevant to a society looking for new constellations and configurations of meaning which make sense for today.
The re-invention of live performance can take place from inside its existing forms and from outside in the development of new art forms and disciplines. As surely as with photography and film, new media technologies will give rise to new art forms (the British Film and Television Academy is trying to get a jump on this by creating a new category for awards in the area of 'interactive multimedia'). Just as with photography and film, these new art forms will have an impact on theater and dance. In addition to the interactive multimedia, there are already interesting new developments in the area of communication and networked artforms, inspired by the internet.
These new art forms will demand other modes of perception which will alter our ways in which we restage Shakespeare or mount a new choreography. New technologies will also alter the modes of production of live performance. As I mentioned before, the more or less direct application and implementation of new media and information technologies in live performance is being explored by artists working with telematic performance spaces, computerized scenographic and lighting design, computerized choreography and performer controlled stage environments, holographic actors/ dancers, etc. However, the fundamental time/ space conditions for the public ritual that is theater and dance (arrival at and for a specified time and space as determined by the maker) will not necessarily change.
It is likely that we will continue to see live performance using increasingly mixed-means – a multidisciplinary performance art in which independent media, dance, film/ video, sound, scenography, texts, etc. come together to create more relevant and dynamic spectacles. Whether this is more dance or theater may become increasingly unclear. Definitions may be left up to the programmers, producers, journalists and critics who usually help determine categories for the public. I suspect we will see less strictly text-based theater… and a more physical one. Possibly 'dance' will increase in value. Johannes Odenthal, former editor of Ballett International, on the work of artists such as DV8, Jan Fabre, Meg Stuart, etc. writes: “Contemporary dance, or better, dance-theatre, gives (the) deconstructions of current images and concepts a dramatic actuality that contemporary theatre can hardly achieve”.
There will, I believe, be new forms of dramaturgy developed which will be relevant for the mixing of these media, and there will also be new creative organisations which evolve more fluid ways of working with companies of performers, audience and community development, support for the growth and development of the makers/ directors/ choreographers, etc. – organisational forms like Victoria in Gent. In education, such new forms are being developed at DasArts – an advanced training institution for artists which is associated with the Amsterdam School of the Arts. DasArts is actively seeking more relevant educational contexts for young artists and is indicative of directions in which creative thinking in arts education might evolve… away from the 'institution' and more towards fluid and adaptive circumstances.