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Reviewed by:
  • Performance, Technology and Science
  • Michelle Mills Smith
Performance, Technology and Science. By Johannes Birringer. New York: PAJ Publications, 2008; pp. xxxii + 338. $24.95 paper.

The nascent field of digital performance has only recently begun to attract critical attention; thus I [End Page 649] approached with anticipation Johannes Birringer’s latest publication. While his former work has tended to deal with the political ramifications of performance practices, this volume focuses instead on the practices themselves—the strategies involved in successful incorporation of digital technologies into stage performance. Birringer notes that this incorporation is not simply a layering-on of new spectacle to an age-old formula; rather, he claims that “digital composition and the programming of interactive environments signal a fundamental break with earlier conventions of compositional practice for the stage” (xxi). It is from this standpoint that he addresses the range of concepts and practices arising in the trenches of this fast-growing performance genre. Drawing from his background as an innovator in digital-performance technologies, Birringer offers his volume as an introduction to this emerging field. While Birringer himself admits his bias toward dance, the practices he describes have validity across a range of performance modes.

Birringer identifies the overarching critical concept in digital performance as “emergence,” an “ecological theory of digital and communication techniques, which move us toward processes of exchange among interacting participants” (xxix–xxx). In other words, digital technologies are changing the landscape of performance, opening up not only disciplinary boundaries between “science” and “art,” but the boundaries of conventional understanding of body, environment, and agency as well. The volume itself is divided into five sections, dealing in turn with movement, interaction, environments, artificial intelligence, and biotechnologies. In each section, Birringer takes a considered approach to discussing the developing performance practices unique to the use of digital technologies and highlights areas he believes are ripe for further investigation.

In the first section, “Moving Through Technologies,” Birringer investigates “the compatibility between live performance and the moving image, between the polyrhythmic components of movement and the digital behavior of images and sound” (5). Digital technologies problematize traditional notions of performer and performance space, and Birringer explores the concepts of telematic performance, interactivity, and mediation in the practices of artists ranging from Stelarc to Robert Wilson.

The focus of the section “The Interactive Paradigm” is twofold. First, Birringer addresses the phenomena of interaction as “a spatio-temporal and architectural concept for performance that maintains a social dimension even if intersubjectivity . . . is reframed under digital technocultural conditions” (110). And second, interaction is treated in the more narrow sense of performer control of media through gesture- or movement-tracking interfaces. Birringer’s definition of interactivity is anticipated by early modernist movements such as Bauhaus and the machine aesthetic of cubism and constructivism, and is more fully realized in contemporary practices such as the live postproduction of the Wooster Group. The field is moving away from the more rigid scenography and choreography of traditional performance practice to relational architecture and attention to the fluid transference of energy/movement, as seen in contact improvisation. Interactivity depends heavily on adaptability and improvisation: “perception of movement . . . no longer coincides with what we hear or what our bodies feel” in the telepresent environment (158).

“Digital Environments, Wearable Spaces” looks at digital performance from what is more traditionally considered the “design” side of the performance event, digging more deeply into the overlapping boundaries between performance and installation and the concept of the “participant-user.” Birringer incorporates Erving Goffman’s treatment of “interaction rituals” into a “methodological examination of the kinds of behavioral patterns observed in audiences’ interaction with programmed environments” (190), which leads to a discussion of “the expert performer as interactor” (192). Ideas of “user-testing” reminiscent of computer games give rise to a critical look at how interactive installations (in museums, for example) “construct a socio-structural space for play . . . and how they explicitly emphasize the observer’s active assistance in forming the play itself” (204). The following chapter on “wearables” investigates technologies such as control sensors and/or media projections on the performer’s body, while “Level Up” focuses on avatars and telematic interaction. “Artificial Intelligence” (AI) is a short section...


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