Performance and Audience (Performance)

Examples have been cited elsewhere (see wiki article - The Cast (Performance)) where the movements of performers have been translated into digital signals and have been used to animate or actuate virtual dance partners, either in the form of digital representations of figures (BIPED by Merce Cunningham) or robotic devices (Afasia by Marcel.lí Antúnez Roca). The reason for separating these examples from those cited above is to allow a point to be made about the visibility of technology during performances and what effect this has on the perceptions of the audience. Particularly in the case of Roca’s work, it is clear where the technology is situated in relation to the performer and it is also obvious that he is directly and dynamically choosing to interact with it. BIPED also functions in an unambiguous way even though the appearance of the piece when staged can work at a slightly more enigmatic level. The live performers and the animated figures move independently of each other and any apparent interactions between them are serendipitous moments that the audience can perceive or not according to their level of engagement with (and their physical view of) the performance.

A number of other systems also allow the capture of movement and/or its translation into digital signals and they are interesting to consider in relation to the question of how explicit technology needs to be in order for an audience to appreciate the contribution it is making. MidiDancer and Isadora are systems that have been developed by Mark Coniglio who co-directs the dance company Troika Ranch. MidiDancer is a wearable hardware movement sensing system that uses flex sensor strips over the dancer’s joints (elbows, knees, hips etc.) which then connect by wire to a small microcomputer usually attached to the dancer’s back. This box also features a radio transmitter which sends information from the sensors to a receiver offstage linked to a computer running the Isadora software, which then uses the data to control a range of media that is simultaneously seen or heard in conjunction with the performance.

Whilst this allows for seamless interaction between the performer and any media format that is configured to respond to that performance, there is a danger that the work will take on the appearance of having been created entirely in advance and therefore lack any sense of ‘liveness’, a concept and an issue that has been widely debated in digital performance circles for some years. This same issue in relation to ‘laptop music’ is identified and countered by Marc Weidenbaum:

[quote]During abstract sound-art shows by laptop musicians, it’s not uncommon for someone to ponder whether the performer is just checking his email while the music plays by itself. Such skepticism fades with familiarity, as the rough contours of laptop music become understood and the listener can judge a performance on the basis of the music rather than the player’s theatricality.
Remix Theory, Marc Weidenbaum,[/quote]

Troika Ranch are just one of a number of dance companies over the last ten years that have continually developed and refined their use of technology to the point where the software and hardware systems they use now blend with live performance in much more subtle and nuanced ways. The mid to late 1990’s seems to have witnessed something approaching a ‘goldrush’ of dance performers using digital tools such as EyeCon, BodyCoder, Laserweb and Very Nervous System (VNS), all of which enable expressive movement to be transferred to other formats. In such an environment of experimentation and methodological immaturity it is unsurprising that some works might now be assessed as being variably successful in their objective of using technology in artful and integrated ways. By contrast - and highlighting the value of just 3 or 4 years experience of using specific methods - Steve Dixon cites an example of a simple but beautifully devised piece from 2003 called ‘Touching’, created by Robert Wechsler and Sarah Rubidge (Palindrome), where EyeCon is used to define the point where two dancers come slowly towards each other and then make contact, causing screen images of their figures to turn from positive to negative.

Having considered passive audience reactions to the use of technology in the context of ‘shows’, there is also scope for considering the ways which technology can bring experiences and interactivity directly to the viewer. At a very accessible and technologically basic level, the use of webcams has enabled any space adjacent to a network connection to act as a site for performance, a format famously exploited by Jennifer Ringley who maintained a continuous netcast of her daily comings and goings for almost eight years at a website called ‘Jennicam’. The Telematic Art of figures such as Roy Ascott, Paul Sermon and Eduardo Kac is a more formal attempt to use computer-mediated communications technology to investigate ideas such as: presence/absence; the virtual and the physical; and the nature of human relations as defined through digital media.

As a brand of performance, a work such as Paul Sermon’s ‘Telematic Vision’ (1993) defines a slightly different paradigm where the differentiation between audience and performer breaks down. In this installation the participant is seated on a sofa facing a screen which initially appears to be a straightforward depiction of them taken from a camera positioned above the screen.

Fig. 7 Representation of the technique used for ‘Telematic Vision’ by Paul SermonFig. 7 Representation of the technique used for ‘Telematic Vision’ by Paul Sermon

The unexpected occurs when someone at a remote location faced with an identical scenario also sits down on their sofa which results in both screens displaying both people sat on the sofa as if they were seated together. Interplay between unfamiliar remote participants often begins uncertainly but soon develops into a playful investigation of the space they both inhabit, much in the same way as participants responded to his earlier work ‘Telematic Dreaming’ (1992) which used comparable methods in the context of remote bed-sharing. The tools that underpin this work include an ISDN connection, video-conferencing equipment and video cameras.

Many performance-related telematic art works are concerned with the presence, absence or extent of communications infrastructure, as well as the latency, effectiveness and veracity of the links that such networks provide. Installations that address themes of surveillance have been widely tackled and the spread of wireless networks have focused attention on increasingly discreet methods of telematic intervention. A presentation at the CHArt (Computers and History of Art) 2006 conference featured a work by the LOCA (Location Oriented Critical Arts) group which involved the setting up of a wireless network node in a public space that allowed LOCA to send unsolicited text messages to the mobile phones of passers-by indicating that they were being observed and monitored by an unknown agency.

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