- Immersion and the Spectator
It was Dennis Kennedy’s sensible premise in The Spectator and the Spectacle that there is little one can say about spectatorship in general.1 Audiences are notoriously slippery entities: impossible to generalize about, methodologically difficult to access or analyze. Yet genres, media, and movements frequently define themselves by the practices of spectatorship they invite. The recent spate of high-profile immersive performance events, such as Deborah Warner’s The Angel Project, Argentinian export Fuerza Bruta, or Punchdrunk’s megahit Sleep No More, is no exception. Their practitioners and pundits make grand, often epochal claims about the interactive, embodied, mediated yet hyper-present, affectively rich, and/or environmentally embedded mode of spectatorship that these events demand, suggesting that it engages the audience as coauthors—aesthetically, socially, and even politically. Behind this idealized spectator lies its critiqued counterpart: the spectator as static witness and obedient consumer, a socially disembodied, ideologically and physically passive receiver of visual and aural messages. This latter is a mythic figure, of course, and one with a long history. This history begins with the modern bourgeois theatregoer against which avant-gardists have railed for over a century; continues with the spectral victim of Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, paralyzed in the face of capital’s domination of our image-world; and culminates in the contemporary denizen of a globalized information economy, supposedly alienated and isolated from “true” human contact by the devices that mediate his/her incessant communication.2 Even while acknowledging that so-called traditional theatre spectatorship is a more complex, varied experience than this characterization suggests, immersive theatre’s advocates place the practice on the redemptive cutting edge of a new paradigm of audience experience.
Here, we bring together a suite of books that examine immersive theatre and its cognates (participatory art, performance in virtual and mixed-reality environments, simming, and spectacle) to provide more theoretically persuasive arguments for the significance of immersion as a mode of engagement with and within performance. Immersive spectatorship is not new: Claire Bishop (Artificial Hells) and Josephine Machon (Immersive Theatres) both locate immersive performance and participatory art in long and rich genealogies that include Futurism, the mass performances of revolutionary Russia, Happenings, interactive events by The Performance Group and Living Theatre, and the site-specific theatre of the likes of Griselda Gambaro; Susan Tenneriello (Spectacle Culture and American Identity) and Lauren Rabinovitz (Electric Dreamland), meanwhile, analyze amusement-park rides, panoramas, landscape paintings, world’s fair displays, and early cinema as immersive technologies through which modernity took hold in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Immersive spectatorship is not unique to theatre, nor even to artistic innovation: like Bishop’s, Gabriella Giannachi and Nick Kaye’s examples in their book Performing Presence belong largely to the art world, the technology lab, or the field of social activism, while Scott Magelssen (Simming) examines immersive simulations in tourism, medical and military training, and historical scenarios. As these examples suggest, immersive spectatorship is not necessarily politically radical or even progressive; it has been and continues to be harnessed to projects of nationalism, neoliberalism, and historical revision. Immersivity operates not so much as a paradigm or genre, but as a mode: a set of aesthetic practices, techniques, and [End Page 468] sensibilities, “a state of vision, of feeling and of consciousness” among media, contexts, and institutions, and across time.3
Together, these books argue that the significance of immersion as a mode of spectator...