Can I kick it? to all the people who can quest like a tribe does
Before this, did you really know what live was?
–Tribe Called Quest, Anthology, 1999
The question of what live was, and is, was the topic du jour at [re]Actor: The First International Conference on Digital Live Art, and really, I’m not sure I know what live is anymore.
After ‘hitting a patch’ on my massively delayed flight [go-go extra security measures] and a wicked confusing tube ride, I ran to my quaint dorm room [in killer heels] to change out of my ‘scruffs’ and hit the conference—only a mere three hours late and missing the first two keynotes. Bloody hell.
But, swank attire donned, I garnered my ‘bottle’ and entered the realm of HCI [that’s human-computer interaction for all those out there, like myself, who weren’t sure] and checked my Phelan-esque biases re liveness and the ephemerality of performance at the door. Which, let it be known, was a bit of a prereq as Philip Auslander, the anti-Phelan, was a sort of guru of the conference [and was one of the keynotes I missed]. Little nerve-wracking for me [I heart the ontology of performance], but, fear not, the sharkskin was up for it.
The only slightly overstuffed [not intended in the Brit sense of ‘stuffed’] event was a kaleidoscope of performance, installation, and presentation: Anton Nijholt, Dennis Reidsma, and Herwin van Welbergen’s Virtual Dancer, and interactive video installation in which a “real” human danced with a “virtual” human projected on to a screen updated that '80s game Dance Revolution, shifting it from arcade to gallery. Scott Palmer and Sita Popat also invigorated dance via the virtual in their project “Dancing in the Streets”: commissioned by the York Council to enliven the city’s streets at night, the designers projected moving images on to the street that were then interacted with by passersby as a type of play—the favorite image was of a fùtbol game—as a way to investigate how “games can foster aesthetic moments” and vice versa. Luis C Sotelo’s presentation regarding The Shoemaker’s Ball, an event he organized in Northampton, England, both to celebrate the town’s historical shoe-making industry and to mark its passing as many industrial warehouses are converted to residential condos, was less successful, treading the dangerous line of assigning authenticity and identity to the very shoemakers invited to the ball without taking the project one step further to consider how the event would, or more likely would not, effect any sort of social change in the community. Paul Verity Smith’s L’Instant Decisif offered an interesting variation on the “real”/”virtual” dancer idea that seemed to be a bit of a theme, though more compelling was his concluding anecdote. Smith was a recent victim of “happy slapping,” a new UK and, to a lesser extent, US phenomenon in which someone is violently attacked on the street—so far, in addition to muggings there have been one murder and one rape—and the crime is filmed for dissemination via cell phones and the internet. The immediacy of the violence strictly for technological mediation bespeaks the need to consider all aspects of the relationship between the mediated and the live, and clearly the discourse needs to include not only the benefits or hazards technology offers art and theory, but also the horrific effects the drive to mediate might afford.
The highlight of the day for me was Eudaimonia by the Blind Ditch Artists Collective. A beautiful juxtaposition of sound, the body, and text akin to Alvin Lucier’s 1969 feedback-loop-based spoken performance I Am Sitting in a Room, the presentation about the performance of the same name involved linking feedback to gesture and movement of the nude body, to which, in a later development, specific texts were added that also appeared depending on the shifting posture of the performer. A solo performance enacted by both men and women, the collective proposed a metaphor to shifting and mutating DNA, and the piece offered a sonic and textual intimacy particularly because of the juxtaposition of fragmented text on naked skin. And Volkhardt Mueller, one of the presenters, only tripped a bit over the differences between the male and female bodies in performance, commenting that the female body “works differently in such an environment of ... reproduction.” Also of note were Jenny Tillotson’s “Scentsory wave: [re]active clubwear for wider waves of feeling” about her project to design jewelry and clothing that gives off subtle scents according to the wearer’s biological state of mind and Stafanie Kuhn’s “Extended Presence” concerning André Werner’s hyperopera based on Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta [see image] . Directed by Stefan Herheim, the performance incorporated technology via staging, the set projected upon screens that would change depending on specifically choreographed gestures from the performers.
I was disappointed to miss Brian Curson and Robyn Stuart’s "Exploring the Living Room," which won the Best Paper Award of the conference, as well as Will Schrimshaw’s “Movement, Affect, Intensity: Bodies and Populations in Interactive Sound Art,” as they both occurred during my own panel presentation. While this is often a sacrifice made to organize a full and varied conference, I do wish since so much of the work was brand new and performance-based, there had not been overlapping panels.
Mr Auslander’s closing remarks succinctly summarized both the strengths and weaknesses of the conference, including, on the side of the latter, the fact that the ability to discourse between the disparate fields of technology, aesthetics, and theory was not yet quite realized. However, the emphasis on history—of technology, of performance art, of dance, and of music—throughout the presentations bespoke a sincerity in the respect for the teleologies of both the art and the technology. When one conference-goer queried if the live body is obsolete, Mr Auslander answered that it is not, in the sense of replacement, but that, depending on one’s understanding of “obsolete,” as the body becomes “enmeshed in the technological frame,” we need to move toward a larger discussion of how the live body is altered, both literally and philosophically, as it engages with technology.
The most interesting dialogue generated throughout was of the relation between the performer and spectator—and how the intervention of digital mediation redefines these terms via technological interaction. While Mr Auslander asked whether this was something we really wanted to redefine, questioning not necessarily [in my understanding] the validity of the project but rather how switching the relationship up could ultimately affect twenty-first-century spectatorship and rehearsal of art and performance for the worse. Yet, much as history offers pre-technological examples of meta-corporeal mediation, history also offers examples of exactly this sort of switching up: Think John Cage’s 4’33”; any number of works by Alvin Lucier [including the aforementioned I Am Sitting in a Room], or the entire oeuvre of Nam June Paik. And if one wants to look even further back to more metaphorical or imaginary enterprises, consider Alexander Scriabin’s 1903 unfinished synaesthetic work Mysterium, engaging all the senses, including smell and touch, and derailing the spectoral role entirely:
There will not be a single spectator. All will be participants. The work requires special people, special artists and a completely new culture. The cast of performers includes an orchestra, a large mixed choir, an instrument with visual effects, dancers, a procession, incense, and rhythmic textural articulation. The cathedral in which it will take place will not be of one single type of stone but will continually change with the atmosphere and motion of the Mysterium. This will be done with the aid of mists and lights, which will modify the architectural contours.
Unfortunately, there were no mists, though plenty of lights to modify the architectural contours of Queen Mary’s Octagon—the amazing room in which the conference was primarily held—and altogether the conference’s mission to illustrate how digital live art might “move people to performance interaction and communal engagement” was largely fulfilled, demonstrating that while we still may not know what live is, we jolly well can kick it.