- Media, Technology, and Performance
Toward the end of the 1980s, digital technology began to make significant inroads into mainstream culture. Computers grew in power and acquired the ability to drive and manipulate visual and sound media, even as they steadily decreased in size and cost. A disparate group of artists emerging from the worlds of electronic music, video art, performance art, and theatre—such as George Coates Performance Works, Troika Ranch, Laurie Anderson, Stelarc, David Rockeby, IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique), Robert Lepage’s Ex Machina, Jeffrey Shaw’s ZKM Institute for Visual Media, and Granular Synthesis—began to integrate new digital technologies into live performance. In the heady period prior to the bursting of the dot-com bubble at the end of 1990s, champions [End Page 421] of the new cyber culture greeted digitally enhanced performances with utopic enthusiasm. But the work also met with some resistance, provoking anxiety by challenging modernist attitudes about the irreconcilable gulf between media and performance and helping to fuel a debate about the very idea of “liveness.”
As the flurry of creative activity continued to build throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium, however, this work received only a smattering of critical attention—for example, in books like Johannes Birringer’s Media and Performance Along the Border (1998) and Theatre in Cyberspace (1999), edited by Stephen Schrum, and in articles published in specialized journals like Leonardo. Around 2004, the floodgates opened and a rush of books appeared, including Gabriella Giannachi’s Virtual Theatres (2004), Matthew Causey’s Theatre and Performance in Digital Culture (2006), Greg Giesekam’s Staging the Screen (2007), Nick Kaye’s Multi-media: Video–Installation–Performance (2007), and, most significantly, Steve Dixon’s compendious Digital Performance (2007), written in conjunction with Barry Smith.
Laptops, tablets, and smart phones are now ubiquitous, and digital technology is no longer the province of a geek subculture. The five books under review here, all published since 2010, evince the proliferation of attention currently afforded to media-rich performance practices. Nonetheless, the critical discourse is still in its early stages, and basic questions about the scope and definition of the field remain in play. Indeed, scholars and practitioners have yet to settle on a name to describe performances that incorporate digital media. Currently, common descriptors include: multimedia performance, intermedial performance, performance and technology, cyborg theatre, digital performance, virtual theatre, and new media dramaturgy. The differences in nomenclature reflect subtle but important differences in how people delineate the parameters of the field.
The five books under review here all focus on encounters between human beings and a technological “Other,” but what is this Other? How broadly or narrowly is “technology” defined? Is the focus specifically on interactions with screen-based media, such as video or film, or even more narrowly, just digital video? Or does technology transcend screen-based media to encompass sound or any electronically controlled element, such as robotics, or even more broadly, any complex mechanical element, such as pre-digital automata? There is similar latitude on the “performance” side of the equation: is the focus just on theatre, or is it also on dance and performance art or on interactive installations in which the only live performer is the viewer/participant? Do events that take place entirely in virtual space like performances in the online virtual world Second Life or in video games count?
A related issue is the tension between newness and continuity: on the one hand, many writers emphasize the way that new technologies produce a radical break from the past, profoundly altering our...